In the battle over climate change, Maine will need an army of insulators willing to suit up in Tyvek and respirators, load their spray-foam guns and crawl into tens of thousands of dank cellars and sweltering attics.

Gov. Janet Mills and lawmakers have set a goal of slashing greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent in 2030. To get there, the state’s aging, oil-burning housing stock will have to be made more energy-efficient, one attic at a time.

Careful weatherization can cut fuel consumption by a third or so, contractors say. Retrofitting the bulk of Maine homes could eliminate emissions from millions of gallons of oil, propane and natural gas every year.

But at the current pace of weatherization, there’s no way to reach enough homes in 10 years.

Politicians like to envision a shiny future of solar and wind and electric cars. They’re less likely to recognize the unsung warriors in the climate fight, or what it will take to find hundreds of workers willing to do a physically demanding, detail-oriented job, for $16-$20 an hour.

Earlier this month, Cody Moreau was lying on his back in the knee wall attic of a 1959 Cape-style house in South Portland. He and his crew leader had torn out sagging, ineffective batts of fiberglass and were stapling a high-performance membrane to the rafters that will contain sprayed-in cellulose insulation. Moreau started working three months ago for Horizon Homes in Portland because he wanted to learn a new trade.

“Every house is a jigsaw puzzle,” he said. “It’s satisfying to make a house more airtight and be able to tackle everything you come across.”

But the job will take a week and cost $11,000.

With three full-time crews, Horizon is weatherizing roughly 200 homes a year. Scaling up wouldn’t be easy, according to the company’s owner, David Milliken, because it’s hard to find workers in southern Maine’s tight labor market.

“I can’t just flip a switch and double my capacity,” he said.

Emery Thompson, a worker from Horizon Homes, uses a hose to blow fill bays encased in a membrane with insulation in an attic in South Portland. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Milliken was lucky to find Moreau, who has carpentry skills. Most people handy with tools already are working in construction. Typically, new workers need to be trained from scratch.

To keep his workforce of seven, Milliken pays $16 an hour to start, climbing to $20 for crew leaders. He contributes to health insurance and offers seven paid holidays and paid time off.

“We have to be a good employer,” he said. “You can’t just throw people in a hot attic all summer and say, ‘Thanks.'”

Insulation technician has never been a glamorous job title. In today’s growing energy industry, it’s a poor cousin to solar installer, who can point to a roof of gleaming glass and metal at the end of the day. When an insulator is finished, there’s little for the homeowner to see. No one brings their friends into the attic to admire how well cracks and gaps were filled with spray foam.

But as the understanding of building science has evolved, filling those scattered, hidden cracks is seen as essential to achieving fuel savings and comfort. So the weatherization industry is trying to elevate the status of its workforce. Recently, it consolidated nationally around the nonprofit Building Performance Association, representing companies that employ more than 2 million workers.

“We need to provide a mission and values,” said Richard Burbank, owner of Evergreen Home Performance in Portland. “We tell workers that they are like surgeons. You’re wearing protective gear. You’re getting into the guts of a building. It’s kind of gross, but you’re doing a huge service.”

Mainers may be starting to appreciate the value of what the industry does, according to Brian Watson, general manager at Rook Energy Solutions in Yarmouth.

“There’s typically a lot of turnover in this industry,” Watson said. “People get burned out. We let them know they’re doing important work. There’s a sense of pride and accomplishment in cutting people’s energy bills.”

Ten-year-old Rook Energy is having its busiest year and a caller put on hold will listen to “I’m Fixing a Hole” by The Beatles.

FINANCIAL RESOURCES

Maine has roughly 500,000 homes. And while some are newer and energy-efficient, most aren’t. Upgrading them will take time and money – and at the current pace, many decades.

That timetable could be accelerated, if weatherization becomes a priority for the new Maine Climate Council, which has just begun meeting. It’s charged by the Legislature with developing a detailed plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 percent below 1990 levels within 10 years, and by at least 80 percent by 2050. Additionally, Mills is asking for a plan to make Maine carbon-neutral by 2045.

One way to measure progress on the housing front is to look at how many weatherization projects receive money each year through Efficiency Maine, which uses a surcharge on utility bills and other sources to offer energy rebates, and through MaineHousing, the state housing authority, which funnels money to regional low-income assistance agencies.

Efficiency Maine issued rebates totaling nearly $1.5 million to 2,391 home projects in 2018, in which homeowners contributed $2.9 million. Each home can qualify for up to $3,500 in rebates for air sealing and insulation.

A total of 750 low-income homes were weatherized in 2018 using $9 million in federal funds, according to MaineHousing. Roughly 133,000 homes are eligible for heating and weatherization assistance.

Even though Maine’s housing stock is constantly changing, the void between need and available resources is big enough to drive through with an insulation truck.

That reality hit home recently in Vermont, which passed a law in 2007 aiming in part to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent in 2028. State leaders now say that can’t happen without an immediate and unprecedented increase in money and activity. Cars and trucks are the primary reason, but close behind is a lag in improving the energy efficiency of 80,000 homes. Like Maine, Vermont has some of the nation’s oldest houses.

LEAKY HOMES

The challenges can be seen in the 60-year-old Cape that Horizon was retrofitting.

The 1,400-square foot, three-bedroom, two-bath house was so leaky, testing revealed, that the oil-fired boiler was heating a new batch of air every hour. Sealing cracks and installing modern insulation in the attic and basement is expected to cut that air-change figure in half.

The first step was to insulate the concrete basement walls with 2 inches of foam board and to seal the rim joist. Many people don’t realize that cold air that enters through the cellar and rises through tiny cracks is a leading source of drafty, hard-to-heat buildings.

Upstairs, the attic area had been topped with fiberglass batts. But gaps between the insulation and rafters, and the air flow around the batts, greatly reduced the insulating value. In the attic floor, someone had stuffed batts between the joists. But the vapor barrier, meant to repel moisture, was incorrectly laid on the cold side of the attic. The batts also were crammed in because they were the wrong width, further reducing the effectiveness.

Milliken, Horizon’s owner, said he frequently sees poorly installed or ineffective insulation. That suggests that many Maine homes that are considered to be insulated are falling short of cutting fuel consumption and climate-warming emissions.

That revelation came last winter to Anne Pelletier, the homeowner, after a leaky roof led her to start poking around the attic knee wall.

She had a feeling, literally, that the insulation wasn’t up to par. A chilling draft blew along the ceiling when she was sitting upstairs in the family room, where her children hang out and watch television.

“It was like another climate zone up there,” she said. “It was cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer.”

Pelletier turned to an Efficiency Maine home energy loan program to finance the roughly $11,000 cost of the project.

Even before real cold sets in, Pelletier said last week, her home seems warmer and quieter. In the short term, she hopes to trim the 600 or so gallons of oil she burns annually. And now that the home’s heat load has been reduced, she’d like eventually to replace her aging oil boiler with a high-efficiency heat pump. Efficiency Maine has issued rebates for more than 34,000 of them.

To the larger issue of climate change, Pelletier said that also was a motivating factor. It was prompted by her children, 11 and 12 years old.

“They are very aware of climate change,” she said. “They have me doing curbside composting and everything.”

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