The 1970s were a pivotal decade in American history. A surge in progress on women’s and minority rights and other social values coincided with major economic upheavals as the post-war boom came to an end. It was also a tumultuous time with respect to energy, as repeated crises kept prices high and put enormous strain on the economy and American families. In response, the federal government launched an historic national effort to promote energy efficiency and conservation.
To alleviate the disproportionate energy burden of low-income households, Congress established the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) in 1976. The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Efficiency and Renewables Office has managed the program since 1993. WAP is the nation’s oldest whole-house energy efficiency program, with a unique mandate to reduce energy costs for low-income households.
Lawmakers immediately recognized the value of WAP as an instrument for promoting energy conservation and helping low-income families manage their energy bills. Within a few years of its founding, WAP’s budget increased eight-fold. The program now operates with an annual budget of over $300 million and provides weatherization services to about 35,000 low-income households each year.
Since its founding, WAP has served more than 7 million households in every county and state, the District of Columbia, and the five U.S. territories. Low-income households eligible for WAP spend an average of 13.9% of their annual income on energy costs, whereas middle and upper-income households spend closer to 3%. This outsized energy burden often compels low-income families to cut back on essentials, such as health care, medicine, groceries, and childcare, to pay their energy bills. Weatherization helps ease this burden through cost-effective improvements to various building elements, such as insulation and air sealing, heating, ventilation, air conditioning systems, lighting, and appliances. Each year, WAP services help low-income families each save an average of $283 on energy costs alone.
The full breadth of benefits of weatherization extends far beyond energy savings. Weatherization has proven to transform homes into healthier environments, resulting in fewer missed days of school and work and an average reduction in out-of-pocket medical expenses of $514.10. On average, each unit served by WAP receives $14,148 in total health- and household-related benefits. The program also supports roughly 8,500 good-paying jobs, which further benefit communities served by WAP.
WAP is also exceptionally cost-effective. For every $1 of federal investment, the program generates $1.72 in energy-related benefits and $2.78 in non-energy benefits. The returns on these investments are transformative for communities and align closely with several of DOE’s key priorities: achieving net-zero carbon emissions economy-wide by 2050, addressing historical energy and environmental injustices, and expanding the clean energy workforce. By reducing energy consumption, WAP reduces carbon emissions from buildings and electricity production and eases strain on the grid as we transition to cleaner electricity sources.
One family’s story highlights the tangible—and, occasionally, life-saving—benefits of home weatherization. The Jones family of Waynesboro, Georgia, was struggling to pay their heating and cooling bills. Georgia’s weatherization program funded and arranged an energy audit of the Jones family home to help reduce their energy use. The auditor found a major gas leak and an exposed wire in the family’s attic that was burning insulation and creating smoke. The auditor evacuated the family just before a fire broke out. After repairs, WAP completed its weatherization and the Jones family’s energy bills decreased by an average of $120 a month. You can watch the Jones family tell their story here.
WAP services also provide benefits on a larger scale: the Colorado Energy Office recently announced the renovation of mobile homes through its weatherization program. For these home renovations, a WAP service provider in northwest Colorado replaced old propane furnaces with cold-climate-air-source heat pumps, converted propane water heaters to electric-heat-pump water heaters, and updated propane ranges to high-efficiency, electric-induction cooktops. This transition to fully electric homes will significantly reduce energy use, improve health and safety, and enhance the occupants’ overall quality of life.
WAP has ample potential to extend its services to even more families and communities. While the program benefits tens of thousands of households each year, only about 2% of the 39 million eligible low-income households receive weatherization services under current budget levels. This underscores the need for historic investments in WAP to help cut energy costs for low-income families, reduce energy demand and carbon emissions, and create thousands of good-paying jobs—all of which will boost our economy and ease our transition to a clean energy future.
The Biden-Harris Administration has laid the groundwork for an historic expansion of the program. The President’s American Jobs Plan, for example, includes a $203 billion investment to “produce, preserve, and retrofit more than two million affordable and sustainable places to live.” The President also supports the passage of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which would infuse WAP with $3.5 billion to weatherize more than 700,000 low-income households, and the Build Back Better Act that would invest even more in the program.
In the years ahead, WAP will play a critical role in achieving the Biden Administration’s unprecedented decarbonization goals, even as it continues to fulfill its long-held mission, established by law, “to increase the energy efficiency of dwellings owned or occupied by low-income persons, reduce their total residential energy expenditures, and improve their health and safety, especially low-income persons who are particularly vulnerable, such as the elderly, the disabled, and children.”
The success of WAP would not be possible without our amazing staff at DOE, our state and local partners, and thousands of energy efficiency professionals. We are immensely proud of the success WAP has achieved over the last 45 years and look forward to the bright future of the program and the brighter future it can bring to American families.