Cash for Caulkers is No Clunker

Our energy Q & A column from Philly's Energy Coordinating Agency has a special expert, Dr. Green, to answer your questions at energy@phillynews.com.

Dear Dr. Green,

I watched President Obama speak earlier this month about the Home Star Energy Efficiency Program, or “Cash for Caulkers.” What’s this program all about – and how can I cash in on its rebates?

-Curious in Cedar Park

Dear Curious,

Cash for Caulkers, now called Home Star, will grant rebates to home owners who improve their homes with energy-efficient upgrades. As you might have guessed, however, there’s a little more to this program than just sealing windows and slipping dollars in your pocket. Like Cash for Clunkers, Home Star will do more than benefit individuals – it aims to be a substantial job creation engine and economic stimulus.

How “substantial” am I talking here? Well, the White House press release reads like a hit list of economic ideals: create jobs in ailing industries, save middle-class families hundreds of dollars in energy costs, cut our dependence on foreign oil, fuel the development of an energy-efficiency services sector. To make all these ideas seem a little more tangible, it’s important to understand the economic “ripple effect” of the Home Star rebates. If homeowners across the country invest in energy efficiency in their homes, then the construction industry will face increased demand, undoubtedly helping to stem its 25-percent unemployment rate. That industry will then turn to American suppliers and manufacturers for insulation, roofing and other retrofit components. How do I know that contractors will buy American? Just consider the facts: an overwhelming majority of home upgrades originate domestically, including more than 98 percent of Energy Star windows. Increased domestic manufacturing demand, in turn, helps create new jobs in that sector, with an accordant boost to the shipping and logistics industry and so on. A new ACEEE report claims that Home Star could create 126,000 new jobs this year, with an additional 36,000 arriving in 2011.

The program’s potential environmental impact is “substantial,” too. A well-insulated and highly-efficient home means less energy consumption, which in turn spells decreased dependence on oil and other fossil fuels. It also means a decline in pollution, which should make at least some contribution to slowing global climate change.

So – now that you know what the Obama administration is working toward – how does one get in on the action? Step one is figuring out how much retrofitting, and what kind of retrofitting, you want to do. Home Star breaks down home retrofits into the “Silver Star” and “Gold Star” categories. Silver Star retrofits are single upgrades, with a 50 percent rebate capped at $1,000-$1,500, or a handful of upgrades, whose total rebates top out at $3,000. Relevant parts of your home to consider updating include your windows, insulation, duct sealing, heating system, air conditioner, water heater, and roofing. Gold Star retrofits are more comprehensive, beginning with a whole-house energy audit and leading to large-scale improvements aimed at achieving at least 20 percent home energy savings. These rebates also cap at $3,000, but energy savings over 20 percent might make you eligible for even greater amounts. If you’d like to learn more about “whole-house” retrofits, then check out the EPA’s Home Performance with Energy Star program.

It’s not yet clear which particular items will be eligible for the cash rebate, nor is it clear how rebate requests will be submitted and approved. Heck, it’s not even clear that Home Star will avoid getting bogged down in Congressional gridlock. But no matter how the program shakes out – provided that it does, in fact, shake out – you can take comfort in knowing that your home energy improvements will be the best investment you can possibly make in 2010.

-- Dr. Green

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