Ending the one audit people actually want

What do you do with a program which helps homeowners save money, bolster national security, and helps stimulate the economy?

For too many Republican congressional leaders and the Reagan administration, the answer seems to be to end it.Senators James McClure and Robert Dole and Representative James Broyhill have led the attack on funding for the Residential Conservation Service (RCS), with support from Energy Secretary James Edwards.

Although resolute in its ultimnate objectibve of ending RCS, in light of continuing Senate support for the program, the Reagan administration is now trying another approach, that of drastucally revised regulation that would undermine the program. Hearings on these regulations are being held this week in Washington. Among other changes, they would end most DOE enforcement of programs, delete recommendations for low cost conservation and solar measures, and leave most of the adminstration of the programs to state governments - which can no longer staff their energy offices because of other federal cutbacks.

RCS was intended to be a national program of comprehensive, low-cost energy audits, to be offered by large utilities for one-to-four unit housing. The potential benefits of RCS are impressive. One state program found that the average homeowner could expect annual savings of $700 in fuel bills by carrying out the recommended measures.

In a recent study for the Defense Department, Hunter and Amory Lovins documented the argument that cutting American dependence on imported oil through conservation is more important to national security than the MX could be. Finally, the homeowners motivated by the audits offer a major new market for insulators and other small businesses. What more could we ask for?

Last summer the watchdog Government Acounting Office reviewed the federal energy conservation programs. While criticizing most, GAO singled out the RCS as one program which should be kept. The reason, according to GAO, is that people need ''comprehensive, site-specific information'' to help them best direct their conservation investments. Other energy information must be written so as to cover a wide range of housing styles, climatic conditions, and personal habits across the nation. The usual result is that, by trying to help all, it fails to really help any.

The trained RCS auditor, however, spends two to three hours in the home, checking not just obvious factors such as attic insulation but also major heat losers such as gaps between the sill plate and foundation which most homeowners wouldn't think to check. The homeowner is left (at least in Massachusetts) with a 10- to 30-page detailed list of recommended steps, ranging from no-cost/low-cost ones to those costing several thousand dollars. The audit recommendations remain valid indefinitely and provide the homeowner with a multiyear strategy for saving the most energy at the least cost.

Enacted in 1978, RCS is now in operation in 25 states. The Department of Energy has approved plans for programs in another 16. Since most utilities oppose RCS it is doubtful whether those programs will ever begin if the federal enforcement effort is gutted, and some of those in existence may be dropped.

That's a shame, because RCS is already making a significant contribution to energy conservation.

The largest program in Massachusetts, Mass-Save, is also the largest RCS program nationwide. It received 60,000 audit requests in its first nine months, a total which had been its goal for the entire first year. In a recent survey, 90 percent of those sampled said RCS influenced their decisions to invest in energy-conserving improvements in their homes. They had already spent an average of $125 per household on weatherization since the audit and intended an additional $825 in improvements, which should be encouraging to the depressed home-improvement industry.

RCS also encourages imaginative ways to carry out audit recommendations. In the city of Westfield, Mass-Save worked with the city and state to arrange a bulk-buying program for attic insulation. Insulators were able to bid on a large number of jobs at once, based on accurate bid specifications drawn from the audits. The homeowners, many of whom could not have afforded the insulation at list price, got it done for 40-60 percent savings. The contractors received a lot of work in the summer, their tradtitional slow time. Everyone but OPEC won.

RCS is not perfect. Too few low-income people, those who need it most, have been served. The utility surcharge has been criticized.

However, at least in Massachusetts, even the utilities which fought the program at first now grudgingly admit that it not only helps improve their image with customers but also benefits their stockholders by cutting the need for prohibitively expensive new generating facilities.

Because few states have had RCS programs in place long enough to prove their benefits, most people won't even know what they've lost if the program is cut - until they open their utility bills this winter.

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