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Green Building News

A (Potentially) Stronger Weatherization Stimulus

Getting homeowners to invest in energy efficiency improvements is easier said than done, but the White House is considering a stimulus plan designed to get homeowners off the dime

The theoretical benefits of weatherizing a home – energy savings, greater comfort, smaller carbon footprint – are significant. But for many homeowners, so are the complexities of weatherization and the concerns about return on investment.

Soon, though, those complexities and concerns might be addressed by a new stimulus plan. As New York Times columnist David Leonhardt wrote in his “Economic Scene” column on Wednesday, the White House is considering a program for 2010 that would help demystify weatherization for homeowners, help contractors market a new set of government incentives to weatherize, and create a rush to retrofit that, if things go really well, would echo the enthusiasm that greeted the Cash for Clunkers program.

Leonhardt points to two possible strategies for bringing such a program to life, one proposed by Silicon Valley venture capitalist John Doerr, the other by former President Bill Clinton. Doerr’s plan, known as Home Star (right, a play on Energy Star), calls for spending $23 billion over two years, with $6 billion allocated for homeowner incentives.

The subsidies

For example, homeowners who complete at least two significant weatherization projects from a list of 10 identified by the program (air sealing ducts, perhaps, or insulating walls or installing energy efficient appliances) would pay at least half the cost of the improvements but qualify for a government subsidy of as much as $2,000. Completion of four such projects would qualify for a subsidy of up to $3,500.

A subsidy of $4,000 (covering a maximum of half the project’s cost) would be available to homeowners whose weatherization improvements reduced energy consumption by at least 20%, with the subsidy increasing by up to $1,500 for each 5% increase in energy efficiency. About $2 billion would be set aside to audit the performance of participating homes’ improvements, and $3 billion would be used by contractors and retailers to help market the incentives and guide homeowners to the right set of retrofits.

The Clinton plan, which, Leonhardt notes, would apply to both residential and commercial improvement projects, would reallocate clean-energy money from the stimulus bill that has not yet been spent and would offer building owners a fixed set of climate-appropriate improvements designed specifically for buildings in their region. This plan also includes a financing program that would attach the loan payments to the upgraded property’s tax bill, working in much the same way as the bond-funded Property Assessed Clean Energy program has been working for dozens of municipalities and many states (PACE was adopted this week by the state of New York).

A 2010 option

It’s too early to tell whether either plan – or elements of both – might eventually be proposed by the Obama administration. But Leonhardt points to a comment made to him by White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, who said a new weatherization stimulus program is “one of the top things” Obama is considering.

Simplifying weatherization for consumers is an interesting challenge, especially since energy efficiency improvements can include such a wide range of solutions and prices, from replacing light bulbs to insulating walls and upgrading HVAC systems. Weatherization’s prominence in the news, though, has helped highlight some of the consternation and money concerns homeowners face, and government agencies are at least attempting to respond appropriately.

Case in point: the Environmental Protection Agency recently unveiled a website designed to help homeowners and renters sort through the long list of possible energy efficiency improvements, sustainable-materials purchases, and new-home construction choices they might make. The site – whose pages link to other sites offering more-detailed information – does a fair amount of hand-holding, and makes the point that no weatherization job is too small to be ignored. Even if means just installing a low-flow showerhead or replacing incandescent light bulbs with CFLs.

6 Comments

  1. Jamie Wolf | | #1

    The trouble is its not "simple"
    I'm beginning to tire of this mantra about a "recovery" based on what are in fact dead end "green jobs" based on weatherization. This is unattractive work in uncomfortable conditions with exposure to dangerous materials (it's really not desirable to work with chemical exposure to foam for extended periods with the protection and training most installers are provided with).

    The ability to discern what the multiplicity of our existing housing stock (some of the worst being what has been built in the past decade) requires to make the difference that needs to be made (see Linda Worthington and the Thousand Home Challenge and the premise that "incrementalism = death") is far from "simple". Evaluating and effectively modeling an existing building and the options available to improve performance (and prove it) is a sophisticated undertaking.

    BPI and HERS training is a good start; followed by the real (intuitive)understanding that results from several years in attics and following up with a blower door and IR camera tracking the difference made - for real! Without that its hyperbole.

    The trouble is that the record thus far shows that the programs that embrace these standards at the same time inhibit them from going the distance. A story in the most recent issue of Home Energy describes how the payback thresholds of Energy Efficient financing lead to lowest common denominator scopes of work, when the energy models showed much greater opportunities. The financing framework guided the client to the lesser choice. It's exasperating for the service provider who holds in their hands (and heads) the capacity to go the distance.

    And how about those misdirected window replacement rebates and their ridiculous kin that reward reroofing, residing with fanfold foam, and even pleated window shades.

    There is real work to be done and the incentives need to align with measures that actually make substantive reductions in energy use, not magical thinking about caulking and weatherstripping.

    As the inspiring thinker Saul Griffith has pointed out quite effectively, along with every effort we can apply to efficiency we will also require "Renewistan" - a land area the size of Australia devoted to supplying clean energy.

    It is truly time to think and act big!

  2. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #2

    Excellent points
    Jamie,
    Excellent points, Jamie, but tinged with a little too much negativism for my taste. As someone who has spent many years in crawl spaces, on roofs, in dusty attics, and working with insulation fibers up my nose, I think your characterization of weatherization work — "dead-end green jobs based on weatherization [which represent] unattractive work in uncomfortable conditions" — reeks a little of white-collar superiority. This is important work; and, as you correctly point out, it requires workers who know how to think, as well as workers who aren't afraid to get dirty.

    These are not dead-end jobs; they are jobs with a future. We need many more such workers. We need to begin valuing their work, and paying them in proportion to their value. If weatherization workers could earn $50,000 a year -- I know that they don't at the moment — many more workers might be attracted to these jobs, even if they required crawling in attics and tight basements. So our society has to invest more in the jobs to make them more attractive.

    Finally, it's true that existing incentive programs are not well structured. But it remains a fact that incentives for weatherization work can reduce carbon emissions for a fraction of the cost of incentives for PV. So we really need to put more money in weatherization incentives, and much less money in PV incentives. I don't want people reading your posting to think that weatherization incentives are a mistake.

  3. Doug McEvers | | #3

    The future lies in energy efficiency
    We waste so much energy in the U.S., this makes for a great conservation opportunity. Cheap and limitless energy has allowed the building industry to focus on anything but energy efficiency. Grab your dust mask and caulk gun, this is where the action is.

  4. Steven Tweito | | #4

    Weatherization take 2
    During the years of the Carter Presidency there was a very active Home Weatherization program in place. Applications were based and decided on financial need. Energy audits were conducted and the greatest benefit fixes within a set budget were implemented. I was a crew leader on one of those teams at that time. The homes we weatherized were in cold country Colorado and the standard fare were Storm Windows, Doors, Cellulose Insulation, and Caulking with foam tube backing to fill larger infiltration gaps found in the building envelope. Without a doubt the return on investment for each of these families who qualified was significant and the energy savings substantial. The greenest building is the one that is already built... Minimal upgrades can produce a 50% reduction in energy use based on infiltration alone. This program was cancelled when Ronald Reagan was elected and the solar panels on the White House were removed and sold to Unity College in Unity ME where they now sit on the College President's house! If we weatherized every home in the USA we wouldn't need to build another power plant in this country other than to upgrade the ones we already have. PG&E in CA has a very active approach to this also because the realized years ago they couldn't build any more infrastructure and it was more cost effective to increase overall home efficiency. This is good work for thousands of otherwise unemployed trades oriented people and it provides a learning opportunity for a new generation of Fix-it rather than throw it away Americans.

  5. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #5

    Not quite true
    Steven,
    Actually, the low-income weatherization program was never canceled by Ronald Reagan, although Reagan did cut the budget of many renewable-energy and energy-efficiency programs. The weatherization program has been in continuous existence since the early days you remember. And it's always been an excellent program.

  6. Online MSW degrees | | #6

    great information for creating a self-sustaining hosue
    The benefits of making a house, business, car, etc. more energy efficient are unmeasurable.

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