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Arizona stimulus funds largely unspent

Arizona’s renewable energy industry could be busy over the next 18 months with deadlines looming for the state to spend $499 million in federal stimulus funds for energy programs.

Arizona governments and companies have been awarded the funds from the U.S. Department of Energy for a total of 81 projects.

Solar panels will be going up on government buildings. Homes will be weatherized for low-income residents. Electric-car chargers will be installed. And research projects exploring new energy sources will advance at the state’s universities.

Many deadlines to use the money fall in 2012. That means the next 18 months offer some guaranteed work for construction crews, lower energy bills for some homeowners and perhaps even a benefit for taxpayers as government buildings become more efficient.

A review of federal records by The Arizona Republic shows that administrators of many projects still haven’t spent any money as they review grant applications and bid proposals and jump other hurdles required to spend the money. But many report they are about to pull the trigger.

“There’s a lot of action coming in the October-November timeframe,” said Robin Boudreau, a manager in the Arizona Energy Office who oversees a $9.6 million program that provides grants to rural communities to help them save energy.

The money for that program has been divided into dozens of projects — from air conditioner upgrades in Jerome to a geothermal heat pump in Clarkdale — and only 4 percent has been spent so far. First, the communities had to apply for the funds and the state had to review the proposals. Then the communities had to put the jobs out to bid.

There should be no problem meeting the summer 2012 deadline to finish the work, Boudreau said.

“This is not about spending money,” he said. “This is about investing in communities.”

Other projects, such as a $25 million city of Phoenix grant to weatherize homes and businesses along the Metro light-rail line and a $5 million grant to enhance the power grid on the Navajo Reservation, have spent little to nothing.

Phoenix has spent only $17,216 on the weatherization project, federal records show. The money must be spent by June 2013.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, which only recently announced the selection of a vendor to install new power meters, hasn’t spent any money.

Some projects are well under way, such as the state’s weatherization program that helps low-income residents fix leaky air ducts and repair inefficient air conditioners. The state program got $60 million and has spent about one-fourth of it.

Sky Renewable Energy of Phoenix is busy working on stimulus-funded projects, including two massive solar-power systems on the state’s Medicaid buildings.

The stimulus projects provide the company a steady stream of business that has kept many workers employed, owner Scott Young said.

“Everything we’re doing is an ARRA grant,” Young said. “Our crews will be working pretty much the next year on these projects.”

Arizona has about 271,400 fewer jobs than it did when the recession began in December 2007. It’s unlikely the stimulus will come close to replacing all those jobs, but some officials said there is hope the state will erase some of the deficit through the energy projects.

The other challenge will be maintaining economic activity once the stimulus money runs out, said Carolyn Bristo, Phoenix’s sustainability coordinator overseeing the light-rail project.

To ensure that contractors still have weatherization work and that homeowners and businesses still can retrofit their buildings once the stimulus money is gone, the city is seeking banks to provide loans for weatherization.

The city plans a central directory so that people interested in weatherization can be directed to city, state, utility and federal programs that might benefit them, not just the stimulus money, she said.

“The whole intent is that the initiative would be sustained,” she said.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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