Renée Loth

Cash for caulkers

Bipartisan bill creates jobs, greens up homes

By Renée Loth
April 9, 2010

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THERE IS much hand-wringing in Washington over whether President Obama has sacrificed all his capital with Congress on the altar of health care reform. What will become of the rest of his ambitious domestic agenda, from climate change to education to financial reform? And, given the bitter aftertaste of the polarizing health care battle, can Congress ever produce a bipartisan agreement again?

A new episode in the Beltway soap opera may be about to change the prevailing storyline of grimace and gridlock. Late last month the Senate introduced a $6 billion plan to retrofit 3.3 million American homes for energy efficiency — and create 168,000 jobs in the process. The bill’s sponsors include Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, no lapdog of the administration, along with energy committee chairman Jeff Bingaman and others.

A companion bill in the House is farther along. On March 24 an Energy and Commerce subcommittee, chaired by Representative Edward Markey, approved the bill with a handful of Republican amendments, and Markey predicts there soon will be Republican co-sponsors as well. “This is the kind of energy savings program that Republicans can support,’’ he said.

Sometimes called the “cash for caulkers’’ program, but addressing far more than just leaky windows, the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act is supported by the mother of all coalitions, including the Steel Workers Union, the Sierra Club, Home Depot, and Dow Chemical. Even the US Chamber of Commerce is on board.

Primarily a jobs bill with significant environmental side benefits, Home Star will be getting its close-up in the next two weeks, as Markey brings it before the full committee just in time for Earth Day.

The $6 billion would be divided between two programs. The Silver Star program, funded at $4 billion, would match a homeowner’s outlay up to $1,500 for quick energy upgrades such as efficient new appliances, heaters and air conditioners, or attic insulation. The Gold Star program would reimburse homeowners for comprehensive energy audits and larger-scale renovations.

How bipartisan is it? Consider the New York state Senate, which last year was locked in a deathgrip of dysfunction for months. The people’s business came to a halt as the two parties bitterly fought for control. The single piece of legislation to pass the Senate during this period was the Green Jobs/Green NY bill, closely modeled on Home Star. It passed 52-to-8.

Home Star has solid made-in-America credentials. Perhaps you can buy home insulation from China, but you certainly can’t install it in China. There’s no mandate that the jobs be unionized, but the legislation contains enough quality control, training, and certification requirements that labor supporters believe the jobs will command high wages and not undercut union shops.

The program also is largely made in Massachusetts. Last fall, Stephen Cowell, CEO of the Westborough-based Conservation Services Group, was summoned to Washington to present the Home Star concept to the Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Other meetings followed. In December, the board voted unanimously that Home Star was worthy of presidential leadership. Before you could say Reddy Kilowatt, Obama was touring a Home Depot and proclaiming: “Insulation is sexy stuff.’’

A version of the Home Star program is embedded in the omnibus climate change legislation Markey co-sponsored in the House. Although that bill seems to have hit some shoals in the Senate, the nimbler Home Star can advance on its own, and may even help climate change legislation in the long run. “The bridge that this creates is very helpful in constructing a working relationship with Republicans on energy issues,’’ Markey said.

Besides, saving the planet really does begin at home. Green activists tend to focus on cars or manufacturing, but 21 percent of the nation’s carbon output comes from residential buildings, which is double that of cars. Home appliances, computers, entertainment, heating and cooling — Cowell says that a comprehensive retrofit of a private home can cut its carbon footprint up to 40 percent.

Unemployment in the construction sector is close to 25 percent. The housing market may take years to recover. The planet steams. Obama and Congress have some serious home work to do.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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