President Barack Obama on Tuesday unveiled details of a proposal that would give rebates at the cash register to people who want to make their homes more energy-efficient.
A homeowner who buys materials to save energy — better windows or insulation, for example — would get 50 percent of the cost back, up to $1,500 for a $3,000 purchase. Those who hire experts to check their entire houses for energy-saving improvements and do major makeovers could qualify for rebates of up to $3,000.
The White House hopes that the idea catches on, much like last year's "cash for clunkers" money-back program for trading in gas-guzzling vehicles for more fuel-efficient ones. The building program — called Homestar, but also known as "cash for caulkers" — would need approval from Congress. The White House is expected to ask for about $6 billion.
Obama described the program during a speech at Savannah Technical College in Savannah, Ga. He acknowledged that it could be a hard sell politically.
The efficiency rebates plan was "not a Democratic idea or a Republican idea" but "a common-sense approach that will help jump-start job creation while making our economy stronger," the president said.
"Just like a responsible homeowner will invest in their homes in the near term to fortify their economic security in the long term, we've got to do the same as a country," Obama said. "It will have some costs on the front end. You buy a new boiler, or you get some insulation, or you get some new windows, that's going to have an initial cost, and the same is true from a government perspective. And it's going to be politically difficult to do some of this, but it's what's right to plan for our future."
Republicans have criticized the administration's large stimulus spending last year. Part of that plan was a $5 billion project to weatherize and improve the efficiency of low-income homes. The Department of Energy's inspector general found that the work hadn't been done yet on almost 95 percent of the targeted homes, citing red tape and confusion over wage rates.
Obama said clean energy had the potential to create millions of jobs in such areas as fuel-efficient vehicles, renewable energy, nuclear power, a better electrical grid and energy efficiency.
Buildings use about 40 percent of U.S. energy and produce about that share of the carbon dioxide pollution that's accumulating in the atmosphere and trapping heat. White House officials estimate that the program would cover 2 million to 3 million older homes, and owners who made the improvements could save $200 to $500 a year on energy bills.
The program would provide oversight of contractors' work, something that Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been pushing. Independent inspectors would check after the work is completed to make sure that it would result in energy savings. Chu said recently that it was generally difficult for homeowners to know whether out-of-sight items such as insulation were added properly.
The White House also proposed financing help for efficiency upgrades.
The Alliance to Save Energy, a group that promotes clean and efficient use of energy, said it hoped that the Homestar program would be part of a jobs bill that the Senate would consider later this month.
"At a time when the construction trades in this country have been devastated by depression-level unemployment, the Homestar program will provide a quick infusion of new jobs into the economy and help to create a new residential retrofits industry in the United States," Brad Penney, the alliance's director of government relations, said in a statement.
Other countries also are encouraging people to invest in energy efficiency and reduce global warming pollution. The United Kingdom on Tuesday announced a plan that's designed to reduce emissions from homes by 29 percent in 10 years and help up to 7 million households improve efficiency.