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'Cash for Caulkers' aims to make Americans greener at home

The White House and business leaders team up to craft a program to encourage energy efficient home improvements.

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A green training challenge

Key to the program’s success will be the training and certification of a new green workforce. “We can’t afford many stories of people who paid for work and didn’t save any money,” says Kevin Pranis, research director of the green economy project at Change To Win, a labor group.

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The number of groups able to train and license green contractors is growing quickly, says Larry Zarker, CEO of the Building Performance Institute, based in Malta, N.Y. By the end of 2010, he expects around 350 such affiliates to be up and running, training 12,000 to 15,000 contractors a year, up from about 8,000 in 2009.

Likewise, the Laborers Inter-national Union of America (LIUNA) has set up training programs in several cities throughout the country aimed at green job training. By reaching out to Americans like Pittman, LIUNA hopes to tap into both the 1.6 million workers let go by the construction industry since 2006 and the more than 15 million unemployed overall.

“It’s so easy for [job stimulus programs] to miss the workers at the margins who are hurt first and worst when the recession happens,” says Kate Atkins of the Garden State Alliance for a New Economy, which helped organize trainees for LIUNA’s Newark, N.J., program. “What we’re doing is a very explicit attempt to make sure that didn’t happen this time.”

Organizers, while optimistic, admit they have a long way to go. For example: Even environmentally minded Vermont is struggling to increase the number of home retrofits done.

With the cost of making the average home 20 percent more efficient running between $5,000 and $10,000, only a few hundred Vermonters are retrofitting their homes in any given year. It’s “a drop in the bucket,” says Blair Hamilton, the policy director of Efficiency Vermont, a group that coordinates retrofitting activity in the state. “We haven’t broken a thousand [retrofits] a year. And we need to.”

But the small numbers speak more to the small dollars behind the project than consumers’ lagging interest in the project, advocates say. Where there are homes, says Rep. Peter Welch (D) of Vermont, there is potential demand for retrofitting and, thus, the potential for new jobs, even in remote rural areas.

“That’s what’s so terrific about it – it’s all done on a local level,” says Mr. Welch, who sponsored retrofitting legislation that was eventually included in the House energy and climate bill. “Whether you live in Vermont or if you live in New York City, if you have a chance to cut down on your energy bill, you’re going to do it.”

Budget-strapped Americans face both an urge to lower their utility bills and a lack of resources to make "green" home improvements. The Home Star, or "Cash for Caulkers," program aims to bridge that gap. What do you think of the program? Let us know on Twitter.