Many moons — and political news cycles — ago, I was very critical of the Obama administration’s “Cash for Clunkers” program, as much on green (environmental) impact as on green (cash) grounds. Later, I briefly became a darling of the Republican right when I was similarly skeptical of the “Cash for Refrigerators” appliance rebate proposal (they subsequently boomeranged on me when I questioned the relevance of ClimateGate).
But this is not about me. It is about the future of the “Cash for Stuff” model. Even as odds of getting a comprehensive energy and environment bill wane in this congressional session, a “Cash for…” proposal worth supporting has emerged.
And to the delight of bloggers and wordsmiths everywhere, it is as alliterative as it is promising. I give you “Cash for Caulkers.” For specifics, Renee Loth has a great outline and an endorsement of the bill in the Boston Globe.
Cash for Caulkers is the best of all worlds because it does everything cap-and-trade might do without dredging up any of the political opposition. The bill highlights the promise of energy efficiency as the best way forward, especially in light of recent and ongoing developments across the energy, environment, business and political fronts.
Energy efficiency leaves aside the fights over nuclear safety, the viability of emerging renewables (and their politically unpalatable subsidies), the growing disbelief in climate change science, the geopolitics of fossil fuels and the domestic political tangles over drilling. Instead, it delivers savings to consumers, creates jobs, increases security, and slows the frantic scramble for new fuel supply. And, if you’re an energy user, and you’d rather not play ball, so be it.
Politically, energy efficiency and Cash for Caulkers defuse the two ticking time bombs of the cap-and-trade debate last fall: First, it can be implemented while avoiding any discussion of climate change science, if necessary. And in an election year, with polls showing belief in climate change science below 50 percent, it may just be necessary to avoid the subject.
Second, large-scale energy efficiency can happen now, without triggering a major inflection point for our economic system or even stoking the rhetoric or fears about unintended consequences.
Rather than view the recent Obama announcements on nukes and drilling as a bald, short-term political play, they have to be interpreted as an acknowledgment by the White House that in spite of the administration’s aspirational goals, obstacles to broad scale renewable adoption still exist (technology, siting and regulation, among others). Cue energy efficiency!
The problem has always been motivation. Consumers are looking for instant gratification. Utilities find incentives to pursue the safe, affordable, reliable operation that satisfies regulators come rate-making time. And investors and governments like splashy green tech plays.
In other words, energy efficiency isn’t sexy. Plus, it has a long and sordid history. But, with states (including my own, Massachusetts) setting up regulatory conditions (especially in the electricity sector) that incentivize key players to go after each kilowatt hour with gusto, 2010 should be the year that turns the debate.
Clearly, we will not get a price on carbon this year. That was the administration’s plan to bridge the price gap for the still-emerging renewable technologies that still command a steep premium. But efficiency works at any price, especially in deregulated states where utilities no longer have a stake in expanding generation capacity.
In those states, the companies that still control most everyone’s access to power can now pursue the long-hoped-for evolution to “decoupled” markets where they capture just as much revenue for each kilowatt hour saved as they do for those sold. With somewhere around one-third of domestic carbon emissions coming from buildings, energy efficiency programs that can tap into utility access to ratepayer dollars and customer meters have huge potential upside.
And, energy efficiency is (ahem) “shovel-ready.” Both on the state and national levels, means-tested energy efficiency programs have made use of a winning combination: 1) community-based, governmental and nonprofit organizations, 2) invested utility partners and 3) entrepreneur auditors and contractors.
Energy efficiency can make immediate use of our existing framework and technology. Going full bore after energy efficiency savings and funding programs would not do anything to derail long-term efforts to change that paradigm, the way that many feel new nuclear capacity, clean coal subsidies or expanded offshore drilling might.
If utility regulations and incentives are tweaked properly, solutions like those offered by Cash for Caulkers could be deployed rapidly, on the existing grid that serves most of America’s electrical load. Pointing back to Massachusetts, that state’s largest utility recently testified before Congress on the mutual benefit for consumers, regulators, utilities and the environment under the Commonwealth’s approved energy efficiency plan.
Also, since the utilities claim revenue from the savings and not the programs themselves, the plan would stoke the fires of start-up small businesses that drive job growth. Energy efficiency creates jobs in technology research and development and program development and implementation, from high tech smart grid to nitty-gritty weatherization.
Indeed, under the Bay State’s program, just one energy efficiency and retrofit project under the City of Boston’s “Renew Boston” program created more than 850 jobs and contributed to energy savings, carbon reduction and improvement of housing stock in an economically depressed community.
Call it “Cash for Caulkers,” or by its formal name, Home Star. Whatever you call it, it promises to be a win for energy consumers, job seekers, utilities, communities, our country and the planet — both consumer groups, environmental advocates and industry and business groups think so. Now, let’s see if that coalition can get an energy bill passed in this Congress.
photo: ziggy fresh