Forget nuclear and natural gas. Put aside plug-in hybrids and photovoltaics. Skip the smart grid and better battery storage. For all the exciting talk of breakthrough technologies and advanced energy R&D, the best hope we have for satisfying our ever-increasing appetite for energy is decidedly low-tech, and not particularly sexy.
So put down the keys to your Tesla Model S, and pick up the caulk gun. Because we’re going to talk about weatherization. (I warned you...this energy solution ain’t sexy.)
Why weatherization? Because it is absolutely the lowest hanging fruit in any pursuit of true American energy independence, or of a clean, secure energy future. Because it’s tried-and-true, we already know how to do it, it doesn’t depend on any technological breakthroughs, and we’ve got all the tools it takes, most of which are readily available in your local Home Depot. And because it’s one energy idea that pretty much everyone—progressives and libertarians, rich and poor, urban and rural—can agree on. (Show me someone who would argue against saving money on oil and gas consumption at home, and I’ll show you an oil or gas exec.)
The problem is simple: we’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil- and gas- warmed air leaking out of American homes. This is what Amory Lovins, efficiency guru and founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, calls “the oil field in our attics."
The solution is just as simple: seal the leaks, insulate the buildings, save homeowners money, reduce our collective consumption of fossil fuels, and cut greenhouse gas pollution drastically. Oh, and we can create a heck of a lot of jobs in the process.
A few years ago, in this same space, I wrote optimistically about a Department of Energy plan to use stimulus funds give a much-needed shot in the arm to a proven—if long-underfunded—Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) that provides low-income families with some cheap home energy retrofits. A couple months ago, the one millionth home was weatherized since the program kicked off in early 2009.
Weatherized homes have been saving occupants an average of over $400 in their heating and cooling bills after the first year alone. (Not to mention the reduction of 2.65 tons of CO2 emitted from every home.) Since the stimulus jump-started WAP, more than 12,000 “direct jobs” (in Department of Labor speak) have been created quarterly, most coming from the all-important (and recently struggling) construction sector. And according to the DOE, roughly 90 percent of the materials used in home weatherization are made in the U.S.A., giving an extra boost to our domestic economy.
That one million home milestone may is impressive, but a total of 38 million homes qualify for the program (those at or below 200-percent of the poverty line), so let’s hope that its success begets further investment.
While the Weatherization Assistance Program itself targets low-income Americans (families that, it should be noted, spend a whopping average of 15 percent of their income on energy expenses), you don’t need WAP to reap the benefits of weatherization. A $5,000 upfront investment will pay for itself in roughly 10-12 years, and if that initial cost is too much to bear, more and more local banks and credit unions are offering some form of “energy retrofit” loans that allow you to pay for the work over time with the money that you’re saving.
Of course, you can always start small. Cheap, easy DIY improvements like caulking windows, weatherstripping windows and doors, and blowing cheap foam insulation into obvious gaps in your home’s envelope can yield immediate savings of over 10 percent on your heating and cooling bills. Save money, reduce demand for fossil fuels, cut down on climate pollution, and help create some American jobs.
Yes, solar panels and offshore wind farms, high voltage transmission lines and smart grids may well be our clean energy future. But weatherization—boring, low-tech, 20th Century weatherization—is something we can all do right now, and given our insatiable national appetite for fossil fuels, it’s something that we can’t really afford to overlook any longer.
The Department of Energy has a super-useful website devoted to weatherization, including information about tax credits and incentives, stats about the WAP program, and even DIY tips to help you start saving energy at home today.
The Center for American Progress has an informative review of the first three years of WAP.
This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at good.is/energy.