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Home efficiency pros cross fingers Home Star will pass

The Home Star program has a shot at passage in an oil spill-focused energy bill, paving the way for services and goods to improve home energy and water efficiency.

Home Star--the program nicknamed Cash for Caulkers designed to kick-start the home energy efficiency services market--stands a chance of passage as part of an offshore-drilling-focused energy bill.

But more than just driving demand for efficient hot-water heaters and insulation, the bill demands that contractors provide data on home efficiency performance for consumers to qualify for the biggest rebates.

The Senate next week is expected to debate a scaled-down energy bill which is largely a response to the Gulf oil spill but includes Home Star and incentives for electric and natural-gas vehicles.

Although passage is not certain, the $5 billion bill would be a shot in the arm for the foundering home performance business and introduce more accountability on contractors, said Matt Golden, the policy director for advocacy group Efficiency First and the president of Recurve, an efficiency services company.

"We're quite bullish that this is a good vehicle but with the politics in the Senate, nothing is easy," he said, adding that in previous years, Home Star would have been a stand-alone bill and faced an easier route to passage.

There are three components to Home Star. (See details in Senate bill starting on page 305 of PDF.) They include two levels of home efficiency incentives and financing for home improvements. The financing, which would be done through states, is particularly important given how Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) loans linked to a building's property tax are struggling to take hold.

The Silver Star portion of Home Star provides rebates, available for a year, up to $3,000 toward equipment that improves energy efficiency and water conservation. To get the money, consumers need to work with accredited professionals. (The Department of Energy is tasked with setting up a Web site to list eligible contractors, but in the meantime the Building Performance Institute provides accreditation.)

"We're trying to raise the bar because we know that much installing today is not done correctly and we're trying to advance the industry," said Golden.

Gold Star is a two-year program that offers up to $8,000 in rebates but contractors and homeowners need to demonstrate the efficiency improvements.

After doing an energy audit and using simulation software to model energy and water use, a home is eligible for $3,000 in rebates for a 20 percent improvement. Each 5 percent efficiency improvement opens up another $1,000 up to the limit, or half the total cost of the installation, according to the Senate version of the bill.

Having to quantify the results is meant to add more rigor to the home performance industry, said Golden.

"There's no chance that we have money to subsidize our ways to our goals," he said, adding that homes account for 20 percent of the energy use in the U.S. "To get to our goal and to be economically sustainable, we have to create industry where we can predict energy-efficiency gains that are accurate.'

The longer-term vision is to incorporate that efficiency improvement data for planning the capacity needed on the electricity grid, Golden said. With more data, energy reduction forecasts become more accurate and useful to grid planners.

In the meantime, though, passage of Home Star would simply help put the home performance industry on the map, Golden said. And educated consumers who already know about the program may stop holding off on making any home energy-related purchases.