Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 11/26/2014 12:31:27 AM CST

Top Stories

Katharine Lau/Medill

Data from: City of Chicago Recovery and Reinvestment Web site

Green workers are training, but where are the green jobs?

by Katharine Lau
Feb 24, 2010


Katharine Lau/Medill

Data from: City of Chicago Recovery and Reinvestment Web site

Click image to enlarge

Government stimulus funds are training green workers, but where are the green jobs?

Take, for instance, the business of examining houses for energy savings.

The tiny energy auditing industry is training and qualifying workers to help homeowners save money, but it’s a struggle. Many would-be customers aren't even aware that such a service exists.  

Lincoln Park resident Jamie Welles owns a two-bedroom, turn-of-the-century home and was “not sure what energy auditing is,” but guessed that it was an analysis of “the price to heat your home on a square-footage basis.”  

“There’s a wide-eyed enthusiasm about these jobs, but this industry is struggling like all of the others,” said Corbett Lunsford, executive director of the Illinois Association of Energy Raters and Home Performance Professionals, or IAERHPP.  “It’s a recession.”  

Looking more broadly at prospects for green jobs, Jay Wrobel, director of programs at the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, has doubts about the lofty aspirations the Obama administration has for the clean energy industry. 

“It would be a stretch to complete the goals that are out there right now,” Wrobel said.  

Those goals include the creation of “five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next 10 years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future,” according to President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden’s New Energy for America plan.  In the breakdown, $600 million has been earmarked in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act for green job training programs.  

One such program, the City of Chicago’s “Green Jobs For All” initiative announced last summer, promised to “use over $16 million in Community Development Block Grants from the ARRA to create 650 green jobs for the formerly incarcerated in the green jobs area;” to “place a priority on green jobs in using $17 million in federal economic stimulus funds to expand the WorkNet Chicago System, which provides job search and training assistance;” and to “use a $250,000 grant from Living Cities to train Chicago Housing Authority residents in jobs retrofitting homes for energy efficiency.”

Wrobel noted that “a lot of money” has been invested in training people for green energy jobs, which is promising for the future: “On the longer term, we’ll have enough capacity to meet the goals of the Obama administration.”  

The City of Chicago has requested a total of $2.8 billion in ARRA funding since the ARRA went into effect, according to the city’s Recovery and Reinvestment Web site.  Of that, $1.7 billion has been awarded and $797 million has been invested thus far across eight categories.  In the environment and energy category, the city has applied for $119.1 million but has been awarded only $1 million.  

The problem is, what about today?  What about now?  The Illinois unemployment rate in December was 11.1 percent, up 0.2 percentage point from November’s unemployment rate of 10.9 percent.  

“All the pledges and promises to stimulate the economy – there has been an increase in green jobs, but the amount of work available for those people has not changed,” Lunsford said.  “What they’ve done is have a whole bunch of people spend thousands of dollars to get certified to do these jobs, but then they don’t have jobs.”  

Members of IAERHPP offer energy auditing and consulting services and must pass a national certification test offered by the Residential Energy Services Network or the Building Performance Institute Inc., both of which are recognized by the federal government and involved in its Energy Star program.  RESNET’s annual membership fee is $100, while membership costs to BPI include a one-time $1500 accreditation fee plus a certain percentage based on the number of sales.  

Certification to become an energy rater by itself costs between $1200 and $2500 depending on the location of the training and the training provider, according to RESNET.  To start a rating business, costs can range anywhere from $6600 to $10,000 for training, equipment, insurance and annual quality assurance ratings performed by the training provider.  

Started in 2004, IAERHPP has grown to around 45 members.  

“This whole industry was sort of a hobby industry, and just in the last few years it’s been a thing you could do full-time,” said Lunsford, who is also the technical director for the two-year-old Green Dream Group LLC, one such energy auditing company.  

It’s an industry that has in part risen out of the real estate bubble – and then that bubble’s bursting.

“I think a nation that is based on credit and living beyond their means, has no idea how much a house actually costs," referring to the rash of expensive houses built in recent years. "There’s no way that people can afford that stuff – not everyone can be a high-powered lawyer,” Lunsford said.  “During the housing boom, that exact problem of feedback loop made it so that anyone with a pickup truck and tools can build a house.”  

In some cases, Lunsford said, builders were given limited budgets by homeowners, forcing them to take shortcuts when constructing homes and resulting in homes designed for economic – but not energy – efficiency.  The energy rating industry audits these newer homes as well as older homes.  

To convince him to have his home energy-audited, Welles, the Lincoln Park homeowner, said he needed to better understand what energy auditing is: “What does it do for you?  And how much does it cost?”  

Energy auditing companies diagnose how homes perform.  While building inspectors look at a house in a static state, energy raters look at it in its livable state, with people living in it, with wind blowing through it, with people opening and closing doors and windows. Industry experts are not so much interested in green insulation as they are in scientific evaluations of how air and heat flow through homes.  

“The main thing that our industry is trying to address is that people focus on products and not the process,” Lunsford said. “The single biggest problem in this region is air leakage, but no one knows that except building scientists.”  

Outside natural air replaces all the air in the house around once an hour every day. The furnace or the boiler has to warm up all the air in that house over and over again.  Energy auditing companies’ goal is to reduce the time that outside air replaces the air in the house to once every three hours.  

Still, the audit industry's capacity to perform its service isn't matched by homeowner demand, according to Lunsford.  

He acknowledged that the industry is seasonal and that in the wintertime, the Green Dream Group has been pretty busy, but there still “hasn’t been an explosive growth in demand.”  

Green Dream Group, which opened for business in mid-2008, performed around 50 energy audits on homes in 2008, and 163 audits in 2009.  Its projection for 2010 is 240 audits.  Lunsford said that Green Dream Group’s clients generally find them.  He described the company’s primary clientele as “generally smarter, more well-educated, more savvy about long-term savings,” people who recognize that “[long-term] savings are better than short-term.”  

For people to become more aware of the poor energy efficiency of their homes, Lunsford thinks that the government will need to sweeten the deal.  

“There must be some incentives,” Lunsford said. “They’ve done nothing to build demand for this industry.”  

In other words, Lunsford believes legislation needs to provide greater incentives for getting energy audits or penalties for builders and contractors who construct energy-inefficient homes. Current tax law provides credits for installing insulation and making other energy-efficient improvements to a home, but not for an energy audit. 

“Traditionally, people will just be cold in their bedrooms and throw on a blanket,” Lunsford said. “People should figure out what’s wrong with their houses.”  

But Lunsford maintains that “it is not about picking on houses - it’s about people finding opportunities to improve their homes.”