ViewPoint: Francesca Rheannon — A Modest Proposal

francescarheannonSea Change Co-Host Francesca Rheannon has a modest proposal for building demand for energy efficiency: a Home Energy Savings Equal Opportunity Program.

The home energy audit guy came the other day. You know, the deal where your local utility pays an energy expert to come and tell you where all that cold air is seeping into your house? Here in Massachusetts, it’s called “Mass-Save”. Well, it didn’t help me save a whole mass of energy.

The first time I was the beneficiary of the program, back in the 1980’s, the Mass Save guy was like Santa Claus. From his pack, he brought out a voucher for some rolls of fiber glass insulation for my leaky attic, a door sweeper, and a whole mess of other goodies to make my house tighter. When I moved to my current apartment in 2002, the energy audit guy gifted me with enough florescent lightbulbs to replace all my incandescents and another couple of rolls of insulation for the attic.

This time, all I got was a refrigerator brush and a few packets of foam inserts for outlets–barely enough for one room, let alone my entire, tiny apartment. Oh yes, I managed to wheedle out of him some spare strips of door insulation, enough to seal one of my two outside doors. And it’s not as if I didn’t get much because my house is all that tight. The audit guy suggested improvements that would cost me a couple of hundred dollars–as a renter.

OK, folks, this is pathetic. It’s widely understood that home weatherization is a major low-hanging fruit for cutting carbon emissions. It benefits consumers, utility companies, and the planet. At a time when many Americans are having to choose between heating and eating, weatherizing homes would be a quick way to provide some meaningful economic stimulus that would benefit the entire economy. It would boost consumer spending with those dollars spared from home fuel costs — and provide jobs.

The problem is the up-front costs. If you can barely pay your monthly heating bill, you can’t pay for serious weatherization of your home. Especially since those who have less usually have older, much less efficient houses. Energy efficient replacement windows, high R-value wall and attic insulation, efficient furnaces–these cost thousands. Even replacing incandescent light bulbs and plastic sheeting on windows is beyond the budget of many.

And it isn’t just the poor. Plenty of middle class people are being squeezed. After the mortgage payment, the health insurance premium and the college tuition, there isn’t much left in the kitty for home weatherization.

Currently, the federal government has plans to weatherize only 140,000 homes–a drop in the bucket. President Obama has said he’ll raise that to 1 million. That’s nice, but it’s still nowhere near enough to make a real dent in carbon emissions. Congress has added $250 million to the current budget for weatherization. That’s million with an “m”–not anything like the hundreds of billions taxpayers have poured into the pockets of the banks this year. And those billions ended up not as loans to businesses and consumers, but as dividends and executive bonuses.

So here’s my modest proposal for a real fiscal stimulus. It would work something like the earned income credit–starting high at the lower end of the income spectrum and phasing out the higher you went. It could cap, say, at 300% of the poverty level ($62,000 for a family of four). At that level of annual income, the program would include about half of all Americans.

It wouldn’t take all that much, per household. As economist (and Sea Change guest) Bob Pollin reports in “Green Recovery,” investing $2,500 up front in home retrofitting would save the average U.S. household about $900 per year in its overall energy bills. After three years, the savings would be gravy to the budget, to be used to further stimulate the economy through new spending.

To make sure the money is spent on carbon-cutting improvements, it would come in the form of vouchers for home weatherization products and services to bring a home up to a strict efficiency code. It would be administered by the utility companies, like the MASS-Save-type home energy programs are now. Homeowners and renters would be treated alike and landlords could get a modest tax break for participating in the program, on top of the vouchers.

How would we pay for it? How about a .5 to one percent tax on all transactions on fossil fuel energy stocks? (.5% on lesser emitters like natural gas, 1% on coal or tar sands oil.) That would go a long way toward paying for America to set foot solidly on the home energy efficiency path. It might even leave enough left over to start paying for alternative energy for homes–not just energy efficiency–thereby helping to pump blood into the currently anemic clean energy technology sector.

The Home Energy Saving Equal Opportunity Program would slash carbon emissions, put money into the slack pockets of Americans, boost the economy and provide jobs. But it would do something else just as important: show people what energy efficiency can do for them — and thereby build public support for the transition to the cleaner, greener economy we all need.