Local nonprofit receives $550,000 to weatherize homes

Friday, August 27, 2010 | 7:16 p.m. CDT; updated 7:11 p.m. CDT, Sunday, September 26, 2010

COLUMBIA — A central Missouri nonprofit will be able to help weatherize more homes thanks to federal stimulus money.

The Department of Energy last week awarded Central Missouri Community Action a $550,000 grant to add geothermal heating systems to area homes.

The nonprofit hopes to weatherize at least 1,300 homes by March 2012. Central Missouri Community Action has received a total of $6.6 million in federal stimulus money since 2009, $713,000 from the DOE, and $200,000 in grants from Ameren UE, in addition to the geothermal heating grant.

“I believe we were the only agency in Missouri to apply for the grant,” said Randy Cole, energy and conservation coordinator for the nonprofit. “With all the extra stimulus funding available, other agencies have felt overwhelmed and we have certainly been overwhelmed as well.  But this is extra money for our community and we just want to bear down and do it. I’m not too overwhelmed to take some extra money and help people out who need it.”

The funds will help the nonprofit weatherize 50 more homes per year. Of those 50 extra homes, 15 will have geothermal heating systems added to them. The nonprofit has a waiting list for weatherization including more than 400 homes.

“Geothermal heating and cooling units work just like regular combustion-based units,” Cole said. “Instead of outside of the house, refrigerant lines go through the house and into the ground where it is warmer. It may only be 50 degrees Fahrenheit underground but in the grand scheme of the world, that is heat. Basically, the system moves heat from the ground to the house.”

It uses much less energy to run the geothermal pump than it does to combust gases as traditional heating and cooling sources do, Cole said.

The funds came as part of the Weatherization Assistance Program to help low-income families make their homes more energy efficient, according to the DOE.

A geothermal system installation costs roughly $15,000, Cole said. The figure was based on calls to local contractors made before writing the grant. The foundation will choose one contractor to do all installations after sending out bids. Cole hopes to start construction on chosen homes by mid-October.

Homes are eligible based on their membership in the Rural Electric Cooperative and will be pulled off the wait list in a first-come, first-served fashion.

“When writing the grant, we found that in a lot of rural areas, the people don’t get as much resources as people living in town, especially with the recession,” Cole said. “We felt we could help rural areas more. And then, Associated Electric Cooperative Inc., said they would give us $300 per home in the cooperative that we weatherize.”

Associated Electric Cooperative provides electrical service to members of rural cooperatives all over Missouri. They wanted to partner with the Central Missouri Community Action because of its "Take Control and Save" program to promote energy efficiency and savings to cooperative members, said Nancy Southworth, manager of corporate communications for Associated Electric.

Cole estimates at least 25 percent of the 400 homes on the waiting list are rural cooperative members. Cole, though, wants to make sure each home served is most cost-effective, a determination made based on several factors, especially the difficulty of excavation due to landscape. In order for home construction to apply to federal stimulus money, there must be an energy savings to investment ratio of at least one.

The nonprofit weatherized 255 homes during its last fiscal year despite being held back until October by government wage-equalization research. It weatherized approximately 130 homes the year before.

Cole said he hopes to work much more efficiently this year, and is looking to finish 60 homes per month come November. The addition of two more staff members, he said, will help.

No one will know for sure how much heating costs will be cut for these homes, Cole said, until the actual installation is complete.

He has seen bills for modern homes go to $50 from $200 with the installation. Cole said that owners of rural homes may not see as drastic a change in utility bills.

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