Thursday, May 27, 2010

Home Science

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand how to make a building more energy efficient. Perhaps a Nobel Prize winning physicist, yes. That's why when the folks at the Energy Coordinating Agency (the Philly green jobs training center) announced last month that Energy Secretary Steven Chu would be dropping in for a visit, everyone in the local sustainability sphere was ecstatic.

The US Department of Energy, and specifically Dr. Chu's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy office, EERE, has spawned several critical projects nationwide to assist homeowners and residents combat the alarming challenges of utility rate hikes and to fight continued adverse effects on the environment and depletion of our natural resources.

Secretary Chu with the President.
Spearheading these projects in Philadelphia is the DOE's Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which seeks to help retrofit lower income households for energy efficiency - an issue that could impact on the mortgage crisis and economy in general as energy rates soar. Exxon Mobil, Dow Chemical, and a few other corporations are funding similar weatherization programs for the market sector. Most of them are being administrated by the ECA.

While many advanced environmentalists are allured by exciting new developments in green-building such as green-roofing, solar power, and other alternative energy sources, it should be noted that the key to moving toward a net-zero home and sustainable housing is in energy efficiency and sealing the "envelope of the home." And that all starts with the home energy audit.

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Through a vast array of specialized diagnostic tools and imagery equipment, energy auditors and analysts are able to detect issues such as heating and cooling loss through air leaks, reduced efficiency of existing heat appliances due to incomplete combustion in the furnace, and problems with proper disbursement of home distribution systems. They also are knowledgeable in efficiency ratings of various household appliances and possess an overall expert understanding of the physics of energy and airflow in buildings.

Once the audit is conducted, a crew of technicians and installers can go to work on making recommended adjustments, or homeowners can choose to do the work themselves. The DOE does offer do-it-yourself home energy calculators on its website, which are helpful, but having an audit done from a Building Performance Institute (BPI) certified professional auditor is likely to give best results in terms of savings recouped as well as safety for the home. BPI auditors are trained to look for potential home environmental safety issues such as carbon monoxide threats, an important concern as the building envelope is tightened. In the WAP program, auditors are trained to check for lead safety levels.

Diagram showing performance testing for oil furnace
The Department of Labor's Occupational Outlook Handbook has the home energy auditor listed as one of the fastest growing careers in an otherwise sluggish economy, especially compared to other occupations in the home-building trades. Much funding is being invested in this field in both public and private sectors. Programs for energy auditors, renewable energy installers, building retrofit experts, and more are in place throughout the nation. Yet many people know little about this.

Energy Coordinating Agency
According to a recent Harris poll documented on the website Mother Nature's Network, (MNN), participants interviewed from March 9–11, 2010 showed that although more than 70 percent of Americans know about green jobs, only 29 percent were truly aware of the growing green job market. And likewise, despite the exponential nationwide spike in funding for green jobs training programs, only 1 percent of Americans recently surveyed currently has a green job or is considering one.

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There are many distractions in our culture that often limit advocacy for such programs.

At a recent town hall forum at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, titled Media and Sustainability, an expert panel discussed issues such as how decreasing coverage in the media of science and technology stories has left the public unaware of important discoveries. MIT graduate and scientist Chris Mooney, author of New York Times best seller The Republican War on Science, acknowledged that there is a fundamental problem getting the word out about science related news - whether it's information on innovative new science related careers or significant scientific discoveries. Much of this is due to financial restraints, he says, but a lot seems to be political, and much of it on the right.

It's no surprise that climate change dissenters are at an all time high. The BBC reported today that the public's belief in climate change in the UK is at 29 percent, while at the same time, concern for it in the scientific community has escalated. Similarly, according to Chris Mooney's research, recent studies also indicate that 46 percent of Americans now reject Darwin's theory of evolution!

It's quite possible that the green jobs revolution will not be televised. However, it will appear on blog-sites such as this... Stay tuned for more--D.A DeMers.


Images made available via Zemanta, including Secretary Chu under CC license 1.0, infrared images via Zemanta and flickr photo sharing attributed to "CBC" under CC license 2.0 - owner does not necessarily share opinions expressed on this page , all others by Douglas DeMers, and free to use.

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  1. Again, Doug, a nice post!

    One thing that concerns me about the burgeoning job market for home energy auditors is the tremendous leeway for scam artists. Think of it like owning a car - the average person does not understand much of the technical side of things, and must rely on the training and ethics of the 'expert' they are turning to. I know there are some moves to develop standards/certifications/norms for home energy auditors, so that should mitigate the "does this person really know what they're doing" question to some extent. I am far far far more worried about the diagnosis-remediation link, though, auditors should NOT be in the business of fixing the problems that they claim to have found, that's a recipe for scams.

  2. You're right, there is a tremendous leeway for scam artists. And that's a shame, because it can only contribute skepticism to an unseasoned field that has the potential to do immense good. Fortunately, a framework of credentialing is emerging that looks strong. BPI is a well respected, independent certifying organization for energy auditors and related fields. PA state certified WAP workers will need to be BPI certified by the end od summer, as well as most market sector auditors, such as with the Exxon Mobile program. It should not be overlooked when choosing a fee for service audit.

    The analogy to the car and the mechanic is good. Though, in those cases, one usually ends up having the repairs done by the 'expert' who ran the diagnostics. I see your concern for a conflict of interest. At this early stage, as far as I know, there is little separation between auditor and installer crews, mostly due to the need for efficiency and good communication in these rapid deployment scenarios. That may change quickly if widespread abuse is evident.

    The most curious situation I've noticed lately is that PECO, the local utility company that is now "uncapped" and responsible for all this panic about rising energy bills this winter is also offering home energy audit services. Talk about the fox watching the chicken coop!

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