Cash for Caulkers Is Long Overdue

HOME STAR, also known as Cash for Caulkers, would pay you money for retrofitting your home. It's a win for jobs, energy savings, and emissions...

HOME STAR, also known as Cash for Caulkers, would pay you money for retrofitting your home. It's a win for jobs, energy savings, and emissions reductions, so why is it stuck in red tape?
Right now, nearly one in four American construction workers is unemployed. Meanwhile, tens of millions of American homes leak heat and waste energy. Those idled construction workers already have the skills to retrofit these homes-to seal the ducts, replace windows, blow in insulation. And basic improvements can cut energy waste-and greenhouse gas emissions-in most American homes by 20 to 40 percent immediately. However, homeowners generally just don't have enough cash upfront to get such efficiency upgrade projects started.

There was a time when the Obama Administration seemed to grasp the importance of home efficiency. During the campaign, President Obama promised to weatherize 1 million homes a year (pdf). In his very first weekly radio address as president, he honed in on a target of 2.5 million home retrofits by 2012. Last year at a town hall meeting in Indiana, he reiterated the goal, saying, "If you allocate money to weatherise homes, the homeowner gets the benefit of lower energy bills. You right away put people back to work, many of whom in the construction industry and in the housing industry are out of work right now. They are immediately put to work doing something."

All of which is why it's so incredibly frustrating to hear that according to the government accountability office the president's program to jump start a home efficiency boom has come up 98 percent short of its goal for 2009. Last week, the inspector general released a report (pdf) detailing that "as of 31 December 2009, according to data available to the Department of Energy, about 9,100 homes had been weatherized out of a planned 593,000." The Department of Energy was quick to respond to the criticism with a statement that acknowledged the slow start, but pointed to late progress that hadn't been tallied in the report. "By the end of 2009, our programmes had weatherized about 124,000 homes in total, and we are on track to weatherize more than 250,000 this year ... In fact, since September 2009, we have tripled the pace of Recovery Act-funded home weatherization."

Still, this falls far short of earlier ambitions, and the reasons for such lackluster progress are nothing short of infuriating. Mostly, the holdup is red tape. You see, the federal funds have to be channeled through state agencies, many of which have laid off or furloughed the administrators that would be running the weatherization programs. And lots of these states have hiring freezes in place, so they can't employ new workers, even if the federal government will be paying the salaries. Illinois is a prime example. According to The New York Times, "Illinois wanted to hire 21 workers to oversee work on nearly 27,000 homes; it hired none because of a spending freeze, and completed only 331 homes, or 1.23 percent of its three-year target."

This win-win-win (jobs-energy savings-carbon cuts) solution can't be held up any longer by such bungling bureaucracy. Fortunately, there's a blueprint in place for a plan that would run an end-around state governments and would work directly with existing businesses and homeowners to provide direct incentives for improving home energy efficiency. Some have been calling it "cash for caulkers," but in official circles it's been dubbed HOME STAR, a play off the popular Energy Star appliance efficiency program. As Bracken Hendricks and Tom Kenworthy write for the Center for American Progress, a big booster of the program, HOME STAR "will be simple, streamlined, speedy, and effective," mostly because it focuses on the tried and true tactic of offering homeowners rebates (remember "cash for clunkers"?) for "everything from simple duct sealing to whole-house retrofits."

As proposed, HOME STAR would offer a couple different incentive paths: SILVER STAR would provide rebates for the purchase and installation of energy efficient equipment like furnaces, water heaters, and thermostats, and also for improvements to a building's structural envelope-the windows, ducts, insulation, and so forth. GOLD STAR takes it to the next level, incentivizing whole home retrofits, with a certified auditor calculating the probable energy savings and the homeowner getting cash back proportional to those savings. If you make changes that project out a 20 percent energy savings, you get $3,000, plus another $1,500 for every additional 5 percent of modeled savings, up to $8,000.

The benefits are many. The program, which would dole out $6 billion in rebates, would put about 168,000 Americans back to work in good, stable construction, manufacturing and retail jobs that can't be outsourced. By helping roughly 3 million families retrofit their homes, it'll save Americans $9.5 billion in energy costs over the next decade. And because home energy use represents a full fifth of our country's carbon emissions, fully implementing "cash for caulkers" would do the same for the climate as taking 615,000 cars off the road.

Thanks to senators Mark Warner (D-Virginia) and Jeff Bingaman (D-New Mexico), Congress is now taking a good look at HOME STAR, and the White House has already expressed support. We've already wasted more than enough energy and human resource. Construction workers need jobs, homes need retrofitting, the atmosphere needs some carbon relief. It's time to retrofit America.

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