Energy conservationist helps plan ‘Cash for Caulkers’

Sees federal project as natural evolution of 30 years of work

By Erin Ailworth
Globe Staff / January 1, 2010

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TYRINGHAM - Explaining why he was having lunch with President Obama recently - chicken soup and spinach salad in a dining room off of the Oval Office - local businessman Steve Cowell’s mind wandered back to the Iranian Revolution and oil crisis of 1979.

At the time, he headed the state’s Office of Citizen Participation, which, Cowell recalled, was charged with setting up “community mobilization’’ programs to get Massachusetts residents to do “something to lower their energy use.’’

Under Cowell’s direction, the state office helped municipalities deploy such conservation efforts as “Weatherize Boston’’ and “Fitchburg Action to Conserve Energy.’’

Three decades later, Cowell is leading Conservation Services Group, a Westborough nonprofit that helps make businesses and homes more energy efficient. He also is one of the key players hashing out a federal program to retrofit and weatherize homes. Called HOME STAR, the energy-saving effort is more commonly known by the nickname “Cash for Caulkers,’’ a play on Cash for Clunkers, last summer’s federal rebate program for car buyers. HOME STAR is meant to cut the nation’s carbon footprint, and employ 250,000 workers this year to retrofit US homes to be more energy efficient.

Obama wanted a plan ready by today. Thus the trips to Washington.

In November, Cowell was on Capitol Hill the night he and his nonprofit were honored at the New England Clean Energy Council’s annual Green Tie Gala. Two weeks ago, it was lunch with the president and others, including Home Depot Inc. chief executive Frank Blake and Andrew Liveris, president of Dow Chemical Co. And for the last week, Cowell admitted, the plan was to be tied to the computer in his at-home office in the Berkshires, trading e-mails and phone calls with his energy-efficiency peers and government representatives as they hustled to draft the legislation that will create the HOME STAR program.

“The president asked us to have it ready by Jan. 1,’’ Cowell said. “We, of course, said, ‘Sure, we’ll do that.’ ’’ (A draft will actually be ready next week, he added.)

Among the last details to be hashed out were just how much funding HOME STAR will get - the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board is recommending $23 billion - and how it will work.

“Who should cut the check?’’ Cowell said, was one major question. “Should the feds cut the check like Cash for Clunkers, or should it work through existing state programs?’’

So far, officials are talking about using program money to fund incentives up to several thousand dollars for people who make energy-efficient improvements to their homes.

Those whose retrofits result in a 20 percent or more reduction in energy use would qualify for additional incentives.

On one snowy Wednesday afternoon, Cowell popped into his home office a few times to check for updates on a draft of HOME STAR.

Cowell’s house, a Shaker barn more than 150 years old, is the perfect setting to craft a federal incentive program that will help homeowners nationwide reduce their energy use. He and his wife rebuilt it two decades ago with energy efficiency in mind.

Cowell sipped from a pottery mug as he pointed out the improvements that keep his home’s heating bills at around $400 a year.

“The way the house is constructed, it’s basically a super-insulated shell with south-facing windows and foot-thick walls,’’ he said. The windows that revealed two horses grazing on snow-dotted grass, he added, are filled with argon gas to let sunlight in and keep heat from escaping.

That heat is mostly provided by a concrete mass, called a Trombe wall, which sits on the south side of the house, acting as a piece of the foundation.

The wall is encased by windows, allowing it to absorb sunlight during winter months and redistribute warmth throughout the house, since heat rises. Cowell says the Trombe wall keeps the inside temperature around 55 degrees on a super cold day, and a pellet stove provides extra heat when necessary.

Meanwhile, energy-saving compact fluorescents lights are installed throughout.

“I haven’t changed a light bulb in 20 years,’’ Cowell said.

Longtime friend Brad Steele, president of efficiency product distributor Energy Federation Inc. in Westborough, said Cowell has never wavered as a champion of energy efficiency.

“His home. Lord knows I would not have had the energy or the hands-on expertise to convert that barn as he has done,’’ Steele said. “You could almost do one of those ‘Energy Efficiency for Dummies’ books. He has tried everything.’’

There’s a reason that Cowell is, as Steele puts it, “in the middle of Obama’s energy policy and HOME STAR.’’ And that, Steele says, is Cowell’s ability to carve a path that works for government and companies like his.

“Steve has always sort of operated at both 30,000 feet and at sea level,’’ Steel said.

Cowell simply said, “HOME STAR is just an evolution of the same exact ideas we’ve been thinking for the last 25 years.’’

Erin Ailworth can be reached at