As our nation has embarked on a shift to cleaner, more sustainable energy sources, much of the public discussion about national energy policy has focused on automobile emissions. We have all been paying higher prices at the pump, and everyone knows that car and truck engines spew noxious fumes into the air, so promoting hybrid, electric and hydrogen-powered vehicles seems like an obvious way to fight global warming and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.
What many Americans don’t know is that buildings are a much greater source of harmful greenhouse gas emissions. According to the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, home energy use alone accounts for 21 percent of the overall U.S. carbon footprint – roughly twice the carbon emissions produced by passenger cars. And while the government has been providing various incentives for consumers to trade in their old gas-guzzlers for new fuel-efficient vehicles, most Americans live in homes that are real “clunkers” in terms of household energy use. Every year, we lose millions of dollars in utility costs to poor insulation, outdated heating and cooling systems, and inefficient lighting and appliances – all problems that can be fixed with relatively simple and cost-effective repairs.
The American Clean Energy and Security Act (also known as the Waxman-Markey energy bill) is an ambitious effort to reshape our national energy policy and build a new 21st-century economy based on clean, renewable power. Among other provisions, the bill calls for the creation of a national Retrofit for Energy and Environmental Performance (REEP) program to help home and business owners implement affordable efficiency improvements that can reduce energy consumption in most older buildings by 20 to 40 percent. This legislation – which is now pending on Capitol Hill – has the potential to cut residential carbon emissions nationwide by 25 percent or more and shave at least five percent off our national carbon output. That’s equivalent to taking half of all existing passenger cars off of American roads, and saving as much energy as we now import annually from Saudi Arabian oil wells.
The primary goal, of course, is to reduce fossil fuel consumption, but energy retrofits also can significantly improve indoor air quality and make our homes more livable — cooler in summer, warmer and less drafty in winter. More importantly, the hands-on work involved in making homes more efficient will create good jobs for American workers in construction and related industries — jobs that cannot be outsourced overseas. A recent report produced by the Center for American Progress and the Energy Future Coalition estimated that retrofitting American homes could generate 625,000 sustained full-time jobs over the next decade, and save consumers $32 billion to $64 billion annually in energy costs – about $300 to $1,200 a year for individual families.
Fiscal conservatives have challenged some parts of the Waxman-Markey bill on the grounds that investing public funds in alternative energy and infrastructure projects will lead to an unsustainable increase the federal deficit. Yet legislators on both sides of the aisle have expressed support for the REEP portion of the bill for one simple reason: Basic efficiency upgrades don’t cost much, and they produce immediate savings on monthly energy bills, so a relatively small investment in government incentives can generate a valuable long-term payback for consumers and the environment.
With the U.S. unemployment rate reaching 25-year highs and our economy still hanging in a balance, now is the time for Republicans and Democrats to set aside their differences and pass a national home retrofitting initiative that will lower our home energy costs, put Americans back to work, stimulate our economy, and improve national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.
Needham is president of Princeton Air, an Everett Drive-based firm with 48 employees and 38 years of operation in central New Jersey.
Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions From U.S. Transportation, Pew Center on Global Climate Change, May 2003 (www.pewclimate.org/global-warming-in-depth/all_reports/reduce_ghg_from_transportation)
The Economic Benefits of Investing in Clean Energy, Department of Economics and Political Economy Research Institute (PERI), University of Massachusetts, Amherst, June 2009 (www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/06/clean_energy.html)