Lawmakers eye federal energy funds
ST. PAUL -- Minnesota is set to receive nearly $200 million in federal energy funds, but state legislators first must decide how to spend it.
Lawmakers are considering a variety of ways to spend money from the federal economic recovery package in the coming months. They include proposals that promote solar energy, window improvements, detailed residential energy audits and renewable energy grants for schools.
State commerce officials told the Senate Energy, Environment and Natural Resources Committee Tuesday that federal funds will come to Minnesota in three ways:
-- $132 million for weatherization programs meant to improve the energy efficiency of low-income homes
-- $54 million for a state program that would fund energy projects in public buildings and loans for residential and renewable energy projects
-- $10.7 million for aid and grants to local governments to reduce energy use
Ten counties are set to receive energy funds directly from the federal government. Another 22 large cities also will get energy funds.
Smaller cities and counties likely will be able to compete for small energy and conservation grants that could be used to make public buildings more energy efficient.
Energy committee Chairwoman Ellen Anderson, DFL-St. Paul, said senators' energy project requests total twice the $196 million that Minnesota expects to receive through federal package.
Among those proposals is one written by Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, DFL-Duluth, which would fund a residential energy efficiency program. It is directed at a Duluth-area coalition that wants to conduct high-technology residential energy audits and allow homeowners to seek low-interest loans to make improvements ranging from sealing drafty doors to installing new furnaces.
Dean Talbott of Minnesota Power said the program could be popular in Duluth, where nearly half of the housing stock was built prior to 80 years ago. The Duluth coalition of utilities, housing groups and others behind the program will move forward even if it does not receive federal support, Talbott said.
"It sure would be a big shot in the arm to have some low-interest financing," he said of the wish for federal assistance.
Window manufacturers also want a piece of the federal energy funding. They are promoting a bill by Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Plummer, which would make window replacements in homes and public buildings eligible for the federal funding.
Window replacements often are excluded from government energy programs, Stumpf said. Allowing them to be eligible for the federal funding would help homeowners whose houses have old, inefficient windows and would create jobs at window manufacturers, said Susan Roeder of Andersen Windows.
The Bayport-based window maker estimates it could hire 222 people for a year to build windows if just17,000 Minnesotans replaced their house windows, Roeder said. Another 1,056 workers would be needed to install those windows, she said.
"For us, we see an enormous opportunity," she said.
Sen. Steve Dille, R-Dassel, said he is worried about the federal debt caused by the economic recovery package, funded through tax dollars, but said he believes the money targeted for Minnesota will be spread throughout the state.
"I guess we have to hope that it works," said Dille, an energy committee member.
Anderson said the Senate spending plan will be ready for votes beginning Thursday. It cannot include all of the proposed energy projects, she said.
"We've spent our money twice or three times over today," she told the committee.
The House is working on its own package of energy projects and the Department of Commerce already has suggested its own plan.
Scott Wente works for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Bemidji Pioneer.