White House Outlines Strategy for Home Energy Retrofit Market

greenbuildinggenericThe White House believes it’s found the political version of a double whammy in the home energy efficiency retrofit market. There are about 130 million homes in the U.S. and a sizable chunk of them are good candidates for energy-saving projects, like air-duct sealing, insulation and double-panned windows. In promoting retrofits, the White House hopes to help reduce domestic energy bills (and the related carbon emissions) and create jobs in this relatively nascent industry. That’s the logic behind a new report released today by the White House Council on Environmental Quality that outlines a strategy for bolstering a “self-sustaining” home energy retrofit industry.

The 14-page document, titled “Recovery Through Retrofit,” identifies three broad barriers to growth of the industry: limited information for consumers about the energy performance of homes, difficulties accessing finance for energy retrofits, and a lack of skilled workers in the field. The report also proposes a number of strategies for overcoming them, some of which are summarized below.

Develop home energy performance labels: New homes can qualify for an Energy Star label, but there is no similar label for existing homes that have undergone retrofits. Much like with appliances that recieve the EPA-administered label, prospective home buyers would know that a retrofitted home with an Energy Star rating had met a nationwide standard. The report calls for the feds to develop a home performance label for existing homes that would be accompanied by a national marketing campaign to increase consumer awareness.

Support municipal energy financing: The high turnover rate of housing in the U.S. has meant that many homeowners are reluctant to invest in retrofits due to fears they not being able to recoup the upfront costs when they sell. But a number of financing mechanisms have been implemented by municipalities (for example, Berkeley, Calif.’s FIRST program) that permit homeowners to tie financing for energy retrofits (or renewable energy systems) to a special annual tax assessment on their property, essentially passing on the cost to the new homeowner. The report calls for the feds to encourage these Property Assessed Clean Energy programs by working with state and local governments to develop safeguards and criteria for their use, as well as by collecting data on best practices.

Improve energy efficient mortgages: These enable home buyers and homeowners to refinance their properties to add the cost of energy-saving upgrades to the underlying mortgage. This permits energy retrofits to be financed over a longer period of time, with lower monthly payments. But the adoption of such mortgages has been slow. To that end, the report proposes some fixes, including HUD working with Fannie Mae and Freddie Max to establish uniform procedures and the feds working with the home appraisal industry to develop ways to assess homes that more accurately reflect energy efficiency.

Develop consistent workforce certifications and training standards: In order to rapidly expand retrofit capacity, the report says a national effort is needed, one that identifies required job skills upon which certification will be based and sets standard training goals or methods. The report calls on federal agencies to develop and deploy model training programs for workers and leverage existing workplace training, labor management partnerships and other public-private partnerships to link workforce training to job opportunities.

According to the report, an interagency Energy Retrofit Working Group will submit an implementation plan to the Vice President’s office within 30 days that follows up on these recommendations.  The group is tasked with tracking the progress made on the report’s recommendations over the subsequent few months.

Talk, however, is cheap. I’d like to see a nationwide home energy label program that isn’t voluntary. And there’s always the fear of regulatory overreach. Let’s hope Vice President Biden, who made the request for the report, remembers that it’s business that will create jobs, business that will do this work, and business that will eventually succeed or fail at making this a “self-sustaining” industry.

Image courtesy of NREL.