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Cash for Caulkers: Right Plan, Wrong Name

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"What's in a name?"

Shakespeare's famous phrase rings true for many things, but not when it comes to "Cash for Caulkers." This nickname has become adopted by the mainstream media and the blogosphere to refer to a planned residential efficiency program called Home Star. Now that the President's Economic Recovery Board has unanimously voted in favor of this plan to weatherize America's homes, there will be much more attention paid to the plan.

Relating Home Star to "Cash for Clunkers" is an easy way to convey the general concept. Both programs are based on a similar "incentive" model. But equating the details could lead to misunderstandings about a program designed to help give America and American homeowners the economic boost they so desperately need.

Home Star cash is not just for caulkers. The workforce that will benefit from its incentives includes a wide range of skilled workers. These include insulators, air sealing technicians, heating and cooling technicians, electricians and many more. These workers are part of an industry that brings these various skills and trades together to install measures than can lower energy costs for consumers. Depending on the amount of work being done, homeowners will be able to save anywhere up to 30 to 35 percent of their energy costs, making their house more comfortable and affordable.

Home Star was brought to the attention of the White House by venture capitalist John Doerr in November. Matt Golden of RECURVE and I were heavily involved in drafting this plan for the past several months on behalf of the energy efficiency industry that is represented by the organization, Efficiency First. We fine-tuned it to maximize economic and environmental returns, streamline the process and ensure that quality assurance mechanisms were built in.

Home Star is not designed for the do-it-yourself market, but rather the trained residential energy efficiency technician. Because retrofitting by skilled and certified private contractors is costly, Home Star will help cash strapped homeowners defray expenses through a federal tax credit or a rebate of up to 50 percent of the total cost. Extra incentives to package multiple measures will be combined into a whole house retrofit plan. Under the current tax structure, only some equipment upgrades and materials are covered. Home Star would add rebates on both equipment and installation costs for a range of measures to make the home more energy efficient, including high efficiency heating and cooling systems, insulation, air and duct sealing and appliances. Home Star also has a quality assurance component, to ensure that work is performed to standards established in the proposed legislation.

As if new jobs, energy savings and healthy incentives weren't enough, Home Star will benefit the environment. According to the October 2009 study, "Recovery through Retrofit" from the White House, homes are a significant contributor to global climate change. The report states:

There are almost 130 million homes in this country. Combined, they generate more than 20 percent of our nation's carbon dioxide emissions which is twice what automobiles emit. Existing techniques and technologies in energy efficiency retrofitting can reduce home energy use by 30 percent per home and lower associated greenhouse gas emissions significantly. Furthermore, these home energy efficiency retrofits have the potential to reduce home energy bills by $21 billion annually, paying for themselves over time.

Home Star is welcome news for the building industry, the one that has been hardest hit by job losses. According to data released this month by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment in the sector hit 19.4 percent in November. During the previous month, 62,000 construction workers lost their jobs, followed by another 27,000 in November.

Many of these workers are certified and accredited by groups like the Building Performance Institute, the Residential Energy Services Network or state approved programs which enforce standards of excellence in the home performance marketplace. Programs will be set up to re-train workers in the most up-to-date practices and technologies.

With the passage of Home Star, America's economy will be revitalized with hundreds of thousands of new jobs by skilled and trained home efficiency technicians. These jobs will start right now and use American products installed by local workers.

So remember Home Star - creating jobs for an industry (not just for caulkers), is what this name is all about.

Stephen L. Cowell is chairman and chief executive officer of Conservation Services Group, based in Westborough, Mass. Mr. Cowell also co-founded Efficiency First and serves as president of the Northeast Energy Efficiency Council.

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