December 30, 2008
US Policy To Shift Toward Insulation For Heating Subsidies

Better to reduce the need for heat than subsidize the purchase of oil, natural gas, and other sources of heat.

Correct those flaws, and heating and cooling costs are typically cut by 20 percent to 30 percent, a saving of more than $1,000 annually in some households. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions and the strain on the national electric and gas systems are reduced.

About 140,000 houses will be weatherized with public help this year, a total that President-elect Barack Obama has promised to raise to one million, to reduce energy consumption and cut energy costs for households and taxpayers, who often absorb those costs for the poor. This would represent a historic shift in emphasis for the federal and state governments, reducing poor people’s energy bills instead of helping to pay them.

One can argue whether governments should subsidize home heating. But leave that aside. If a government is going to subsidize heating I'd rather in subsidize insulation rather than fuel supply. Insulation is far more cost effective. It reduces pollution, reduces waste, and cuts our dependence on dwindling supplies of imported oil.

I've made this argument in the past. A lot of leaky older houses are cheaper to seal up and insulate than to pay higher costs for heating for many years. What would help this process: more automated methods to measure heat leaks and detect their sources. Lots of contractors will quote assorted ways to improve a house's insulation. But uncertainty about how much such work will cut energy bills reduces the motive of home owners to upgrade their insulation.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2008 December 30 11:54 PM  Energy Policy


Comments
Jake said at December 31, 2008 7:09 AM:

Can there by many non-weatherized homes left? The federal and state governments have had these weatherize grant programs in place since the middle 1970s. Building codes have required high insulation values in homes since the late 1970s.

KSTRAL said at December 31, 2008 7:15 AM:

Better yet why not bulldoze them all down and use taxpayer money to construct state of the art green homes.

I am sure they would pay for themselves in 50-70 years.

K

Jerry Martinson said at December 31, 2008 4:01 PM:

We've seen the problems of paying Hugo for our ability to commute to work because of bad city design. With the country running out of natural gas, nearly the whole country will soon be paying some other country for the ability to heat our homes as well.

You'd be surprised to see how poorly insulated many homes are and how unaware people are of just how much improvement that can be made. I've cut my heating needs by about 40% by spending just $500 and probably another 20% by replacing the windows (but this cost several thousand). Almost all the houses in my neighborhood are wasting a couple hundred a year by not insulating to the level I've done. I can only imagine how bad a lot of the older housing stock is in New England. What is baffling to me is why my neighbors don't try to do what I did when it clearly is a better investment than the hottest stock tip.

I also wouldn't dare call the insulation values in homes mandated by codes "high". Rather they worked backwards from the amount of fiberglass insulation that you can get in between 2x4 or other common wall stud sizes. Calling a wall with R13 insulation in it an "R13" wall is a joke because half the heat is conducted through the studs. It doesn't get a whole lot better with 2x6's either. An optimal building code centered around energy efficiency probably wouldn't use western platform framing at all because you simply cannot get the thermal resistance high enough without using SIPs. The "R" rating system is okay for comparing two _brands_ of insulation but its use has been misappropriated to imply something about total building envelope thermal performance.

KSTRAL,
I agree that there are a lot of neighborhoods that have housing stock that is functionally obsolete and energy efficiency is part of the mix. However the legal and tax system makes it difficult to make knock-downs as economically viable as they probably should be. In many cases, pre-WWII lots were made in a nutty way and it would make economic sense if you could raze the whole neighborhood and start over with re-partitioned lots. The problem is that eminent domain powers of government are too weak for this to happen. There is a gut-felt reaction against using eminent domain for anything other than an obvious public good like a road or hospital. The other problem is that there are major tax dis-incentives to replacing dwellings. It is not uncommon in my area for houses to be rebuilt and contain one wall of the original dwelling for tax purposes. This is despite the obvious structural/seismic problems with doing so. Another problem is that families looking to buy in urban areas know that the public school system sucks and usually will have to factor in private tuition (especially if their kid looses the "busing lottery" and has to go to school across) in the mix and this depresses the housing prices quite a bit from what they otherwise would be. Judges contemplating some abstract legal concepts in ivory towers forget that the alternative to effective policies that re-use land in urban areas is to waste energy and land in the suburbs and to rot the financial standing of the core city.

-Jerry

David Govett said at December 31, 2008 7:14 PM:

This will increase lung diseases. Substitutes a health problem for a monetary problem.

Randall Parker said at December 31, 2008 7:52 PM:

David Govett,

If the house gets an air exchanger then the air quality doesn't have to deteriorate. Also, some forms of insulation do not stop air leaks. They just stop heat radiation outward.

Also, what we really need to do is to cut back on our use of out-gassing materials. Volatile organic compounds shouldn't be coming out of our furniture and carpet. Some newer materials are better on this score.

Dale said at January 1, 2009 5:19 PM:

We live in Seattle in a leaky old house heated with a fireplace insert stove. Renewable energy and the government encouraged us to convert from electric heat to wood about 20 years ago. State government said that using electric heat generated by dams killed salmon.

persiflage said at January 1, 2009 6:30 PM:

A bit off topic, but it has been reported in The Economist that the three "best bang for the buck" energy-saving actions that can be taken are: #1-improvements to residential and commercial building insulation; #2-improvements to the fuel efficiency of heavy and off-road (i.e., construction and agriculture-related) vehicles; and #3-improvements to the efficiency of commercial lighting systems.
If true, promoting insulation improvements (#1 in effectiveness for energy savings) sounds like a good idea.

Davem said at January 2, 2009 4:21 AM:

better insulation keeps homes warmer in cool climates and cooler in warm climates. I would expect since American homes use much more energy in the summer than in the winter due to air conditioning a better bang for the buck would come from insulating homes across the country to keep hot air out.

A couple of thousand dollars to throw some insulation in the attic, crawl spaces, install adequate roof venting, and replace leaky doors would be a very cost effective way to cut home energy costs. A quick energy audit will show poor doors are a much bigger problem then poor windows.

Jerry Martinson said at January 5, 2009 10:04 AM:

If you have old windows and want to reduce your cooling load with out increasing your heating load, just install awnings to block the sun in the summer. This is more effective than any triple-pane low-E glass you're going to get. Having this and and attic fan means my house doesn't need an air conditioner at all while most of my neighbors have a huge AC bill and I'm only slightly less comfortable in the summer - my house rarely gets above 78 degrees during the day (except for about 3 days a year which suck and I have to go somewhere else).

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