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What are the most promising opportunities to promote greater residential energy efficiency? Is there a role for the federal government?

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By Jonathan T.M. Reckford

The short answer is yes. The federal government plays a critical role in developing plans for residential energy efficiency. The longer response would be to suggest how competitive grants can improve the physical and financial health of families across the country, promote technological innovations, and create jobs, while not overburdening the federal budget.

Families with limited resources are hit especially hard when energy prices rise. Across the country, more than 30 million low-income families who are burdened with extraordinarily high energy costs qualify for energy efficient upgrades. Creating energy efficient homes, whether through new construction or retrofitting existing homes, is proven to be cost effective, improves the overall health and safety of homes, and protects the environment.

Permanent retrofits allow families to use money they would have otherwise spent on energy costs to build their assets and achieve greater self-sufficiency. Recognizing the health, cost, and environmental benefits, Habitat for Humanity has increasingly incorporated energy efficiency into its housing work through programs such as Partners in Sustainable Building, ENERGY STAR, Earth Craft, and the Weatherization Innovation Pilot Program grant.

Long-standing federal government programs, including the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) and the State Energy Program (SEP), have benefited low-income families for decades. Since 1976, WAP has funded energy efficiency upgrades in more than 7 million homes and, in the last four years alone, has enabled 1 million families to weatherize their homes. Through SEP, states have made energy efficiency a priority and have encouraged the development of renewable energy products and technologies.

In addition to continuing these important programs, Habitat for Humanity supports creating a complementary new grant program that would allow nonprofits with a track record in energy efficiency to compete for Department of Energy (DOE) weatherization funding to retrofit low-income homes. In 2013, with this goal in mind, Senators Coons, Collins, and Reed introduced the Weatherization Enhancement, and Local Energy Efficiency Investment and Accountability bill (S. 2052).

This bill authorizes a grant program that will award DOE grants to national housing and energy nonprofits that can leverage significant private resources and utilize innovative materials, technologies, and behavior-changing processes to help contain costs.

Developing energy efficient products and systems is important to everyone—for many reasons—but keeping volatile energy costs contained is vital for those with limited resources.

To the question of whether the federal government should have a role in creating energy efficiency housing? Absolutely. When all sectors work together, everybody wins.

Jonathan T.M. Reckford is chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity International

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