Obama Plan Calls for Improving Home Energy

November 9, 2010

By Wendy Koch

U.S. home owners will be able to get low-cost energy audits that rank a home’s efficiency on a scale of one to 10 and get federally insured loans for upgrades, under an Obama administration plan to be announced today.

With the new Home Energy Score, consumers will find out how their home compares with others and how much money they could save by adding insulation, sealing air leaks, or doing other upgrades. Nine U.S. communities will test the score, similar to a miles-per-gallon label for cars, before it’s rolled out nationally next summer.

“Together, these programs will grow the home retrofit industry and help middle-class families save money and energy,” says Vice President Biden, who plans to unveil the initiative at a meeting of his Middle Class Task Force.

“This is the kind of program that could go viral,” says Jared Bernstein, executive director of the task force, noting there are tens of millions of old U.S. homes. He says it will take time, however, to get it going.

U.S. officials expect that the audits, to be done by trained contractors, will cost less than half of current private ones, which often exceed $350, because of their streamlined approach.

Consumers will be able to seek up to $25,000 in federally insured, PowerSaver loans at or below market rates. Financing will start early next year as part of a two-year pilot program.

“These steps could make a big difference,” especially the loans, in spurring retrofits, says Alex Wilson, executive editor of Environmental Building News. He says many home owners fear they “won’t be able to keep up” if energy costs rise again.

The energy score “is not a silver bullet” but a tool needed to educate consumers, says Stephen Cowell, CEO of Conservation Services Group, which manages retrofit programs in two dozen states.

To trim energy use, consumers first have to know how much they use and be given incentives as well as feedback, according to a report earlier this month by the private American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

The new initiative is part of the Obama administration’s broader efforts to improve home energy efficiency. Its Recovery Act program to weatherize nearly 600,000 low-income homes by March 2012, however, was criticized earlier this year by the Department of Energy’s inspector general for moving too slowly. Biden has said the program has picked up its pace this year and has already retrofitted more than 200,000 U.S. homes.

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