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Infrastructure law set to boost Colorado's work tackling poverty and climate change

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Colorado is trying to fight both poverty and climate change by retrofitting low-income homes. Now, the state is set to get a big boost from the infrastructure law Congress just passed. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports.

(SOUNDBITE OF KNOCKING)

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: Hi, I'm Sam.

LAURA RASCON: Laura.

BRASCH: It's a brisk fall afternoon when I visit Laura Rascon at her mobile home. It backs up to a line of mountains in a community where most people work in nearby ski towns. Inside, it's plenty warm, but it wasn't always that way.

RASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

BRASCH: "It was always really cold," she says. "Cold air came in through the door, and I had two broken windows." Her family's propane furnace also had a habit of breaking down. To stay comfortable, they would carry space heaters from room to room. Rascon says her daughter brought one too close to her bed one night three years ago. A blanket caught fire. Rascon woke up just in time to hurl it out the front door before anyone got hurt.

RASCON: (Speaking Spanish).

BRASCH: "I was so scared," she says, "because we didn't know if it was going to happen again at night or when she was home alone after school." Today, she's looking forward to a far less anxious winter. That's because the state updated her home with new windows, insulation and something that's not usually included in government-backed efficiency projects - all new electric appliances. Doug Jones is with the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, which coordinated the work.

DOUG JONES: It was really satisfying at the end of the project to see our staff capping off the propane lines here.

BRASCH: Jones says that's an example of what's called electrification.

JONES: Which is getting people off of combustion-based fuels and installing cold climate heat pumps, heat pump water heaters and induction ranges.

BRASCH: Many climate scientists want more all-electric homes since they can be fully powered by renewable energy. But this is where things get complicated. A big chunk of Jones' funding comes from the federal government, something called the Weatherization Assistance Program. Over its 45-year history, it's focused on reducing energy bills, not swapping out one energy source for another. Ryan Harry runs Colorado's version of the program.

RYAN HARRY: A lot of people want it to remain an energy efficiency program, but I think it has a deeper role than that.

BRASCH: A role he says will expand thanks to the bipartisan infrastructure law that includes $3.5 billion for weatherization over the next decade - money, he says, will help his program reach about 50% more homes each year.

HARRY: And then we can leverage that against our other funding sources to be able to do deeper retrofits within the homes.

BRASCH: Deeper retrofits like full home electrification. For the moment, his program plans to only convert propane-heated homes. The economics work out because the fuel is so pricey, which justifies the cost of electric heat pumps. Those are essentially reversible air conditioners now efficient enough to work in cold climates.

HARRY: Air-source heat pumps are a little bit more expensive, and so making sure that we're leaders in this space to help bring down that cost is really important to us.

BRASCH: If heat pump prices come down, Harry says the state could expand to far more common natural gas-heated homes and start moving thousands of low-income residents away from fossil fuels for good. For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in that Dotsero, Colo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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