'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.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Josh Hewey blows in bio-based, closed-cell foam insulation in the upper floor of a Jamaica, Vt., home originally built in the 1700's. Workers with Thermal House retrofit a home to make it more energy efficient, thus reducing its carbon footprint. The Obama administration hopes to spur interest in similar work through a proposed Home Star, or 'Cash for Caulkers,' program.

Latasha Pittman’s life was becoming one no after the other.

No job. No way to get by without welfare for herself and five children. And, increasingly it seemed, no way out.

Then Ms. Pittman took an unexpected turn. She enrolled in a three-week home-retrofitting training program and now is pounding down door sweeps and sealing windows to make homes more energy efficient in and around her hometown of Mendenhall, Miss. When her government assistance runs out in March, she won’t need it anymore.

“I never thought that I would be able to afford [health] insurance,” says the former nurse’s assistant. “This program made it possible for me and my family to strive on our own.”

It’s part of what green-sector business leaders call the “triple win” from a national home-retrofit proposal. By making American homes more energy efficient, the program would create more jobs, offer energy savings to consumers, and lower carbon emissions. The Obama administration has teamed up with green-sector entrepreneurs to craft a vision for a program that Congress could enact later this year. Officially, the plan is called Home Star, but it’s also quickly becoming known as “cash for caulkers.”

Despite its simple appeal, the plan faces a number of practical hurdles.

During a late December lunch with business leaders to discuss the proposal, President Obama asked that the end document be “simple, quick, but effective,” said Steve Cowell, CEO of Conservation Services Group in Westborough, Mass. For Mr. Cowell and other energy-saving proponents, that means grappling with two tough challenges: how to get homeowners to buy into the program and how to build a nationwide industry, complete with training and accreditation, from a disparate collection of state and local programs.

Two kinds of subsidies

To attract homeowners, Home Star will offer two tracks of incentives. The first, “Silver Star,” track subsidizes the purchase of services, like roof installation, as well as products, like efficient windows and furnaces. The incentives will be designed to get homeowners and businesses to try the program.

The second, “Gold Star,” track offers incentives tied to overall reductions in a home’s energy usage. A 20 percent reduction in energy output would be eligible for $3,500 in rebates, with each 5 percent of additional energy savings adding $1,500 in incentives. The government would fund no more than 50 percent of any project’s total cost.

Gold Star’s bigger financial incentives are aimed at getting larger energy savings, treating a home as a system rather than as disparate parts, says Matt Golden, president of a San Francisco-based home-retrofitting firm and a leading player in creating the program. “We need to make sure the investments that we’re making right now will be sustainable and will have a long-term impact.”

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.

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.

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