Home Star builds bipartisanship, energy savings

Many Americans look with frustration at the acrimonious disputes in Congress between Democrats and Republicans, asking themselves: Can these people agree on anything?

Substantive policy disagreements are at the heart of many of these disputes, and we do not minimize them. But when the opportunity for bipartisan cooperation presents itself, members of Congress would do well by their constituents to take advantage.

The House schedule this week presents one such timely opportunity in the form of legislation that will create jobs in manufacturing and housing while strengthening our nation’s energy security.

The bill is H.R. 5019, the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act of 2010, which we are supporting as a straight-forward, private-sector rebate program for homeowners who invest in improving their home’s energy efficiency.

The Home Star rebates would be made available to consumers by retail and service companies – a downtown hardware store, national home improvement chain, building materials dealer, or local contractor.

Under the Silver Star part of the program, consumers can qualify for up to $3,000 in rebates by upgrading insulation, duct sealing, windows, doors, water heaters, and heating or cooling systems. (Another provision, the Gold Star program, reimburses consumers for retrofit work that leads to whole home energy savings.)

Bipartisan or not, Home Star stands on its merits: If put into effect, the program is estimated to create more than 130,000 direct and indirect jobs – especially in the hard-hit housing sector – and save homeowners an estimated $9.2 billion on their energy bills.

Individual homeowners will naturally be most interested in cutting their own energy bills, in the process enhancing the value of their houses. The Department of Energy reports the average household spends $2,200 annually on energy bills; remodeling and weatherization could save up to a third of those costs.

The retrofit initiatives of the Home Star program would also have a significant impact nationwide, enhancing our energy security by reducing consumption. Buildings accounted for roughly 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption in 2008, the Energy Information Agency reports.

The savings would accrue with each new window, door, insulation project, HVAC unit or water heater.

The Oregon-based Jeld-Wen Windows and Doors estimates that every year, single pane windows account for energy loss equivalent to 400 quadrillion BTUs, or 14 percent of all energy used in the U.S. each year – about $133 billion annually. If all single pane windows in the U.S. were replaced with qualified models, it would save an estimated $12 billion in energy costs in one year.

Milwaukee-based manufacturer A.O. Smith also documents the potential savings in replacing half of the natural gas-fueled water heaters in U.S. residences with 90-plus percent efficient heaters: The change would save enough natural gas to heat 2.5 million homes.

In many cases, it takes incentives to motivate homeowners to action. Testifying before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, Mike Thaman, Chairman and CEO of Owens Corning, reported that nearly 80 million of America’s nearly 130 million homes are under-insulated.

“As a leading producer of insulation products, our best estimate tells us that each year 99 percent of U.S. homeowners will not reinsulate their homes without financial incentives,” Thaman said. “At the same time, our experience has shown us that financial incentives will drive people to invest in energy efficiency products when those incentives are meaningful and when the process to access them is simple and direct.”

Home Star would also accelerate recovery for the still-struggling housing industry, where unemployment runs about 25 percent. In announcing the $6 billion program in early March at Savannah Technical College in Georgia, President Obama observed the qualifying products are overwhelmingly made in the United States, and the domestic housing and construction industry is raring to go.

“So these are companies ready to take on new customers; they’re workers eager to do new installations and renovations; factories ready to produce new building supplies. All we’ve got to do is create the incentives to make it happen,” the president said. 

“And this is not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea; this is a common-sense approach that will help jumpstart job creation while making our economy stronger.”

The president’s arguments remained compelling as H.R. 5019, the Home Star Energy Retrofit Act, went through the committee process, winning bipartisan backing on its way to this week’s vote on the House floor.

Support for jobs, homes and energy efficiency naturally crosses party lines. If Home Star can bring a few moments of bipartisan peace along with its immense economic benefits, then all the better.
Abraham is the former Secretary of Energy and a former U.S. Senator from Michigan. Engler is President of the National Association of Manufacturers and the former governor of Michigan.