Inhabitat: The Cash For Caulkers program kind of fell by the wayside in regards to the amount of awareness of it, and I think a lot of people are wondering what happened to that level of engaging with housing. What do you think the prospect is for people getting more involved with energy retrofits, especially people who work in the industry?
Bob Vila: Energy audits help people understand the importance of tightening the house, keeping the drafts out, insulating, updating heating and air-conditioning equipment — all of the above. But I think when you talk about programs in the last couple years that have not gotten anywhere, they’ve been victimized by politics. We’re sadly living in a world where we seem to have bred an enormous amount of Americans who are kind of refusing to understand or accept the importance of science, or the reality of science. And I don’t wanna come down too hard on a lot of these people, but it’s kinda like faith-healing: It doesn’t work. I think that it has to do with people seeing government as being a bad factor in our lives. People have been scared into believing that Big Brother is taking over and ruining their lives so that when there are government programs that have been designed to help people, whether it’s with health or whether it’s with the health and operations costs of their housing, these programs are often rejected because people have been brainwashed into thinking that anything that’s associated with government is inherently bad.
Inhabitat: It’s been a lot of work just to get people to understand how important energy use is in the home. What do you see as potentially changing people’s attitudes towards that?
Bob Vila: I’ve been working just in the last month with a company called Reliant down in Houston, which is an energy provider. The work that I’ve been doing is to help the community look at what Reliant is offering in terms of energy conservation. A lot of it has to do with installing smart technologies like smart electric meters that provide the homeowner with information and feedback that helps them understand how much energy they’re consuming so that if halfway through the billing period they realize they’ve already used most of their budget for that billing period they can figure out how to cut back. When you’ve got an extended heat wave like the South saw and Texas saw this past summer that can make a difference. People will all of a sudden say, “Damn, maybe I should get one of these programmable thermostats. That way I can let the house get a lot hotter when I’m not in it,” that sort of thing.
I think these are initiatives that are both the private sector together with the federal government because these particular programs are made possible by grants that are from the Department of Energy. In this case, this particular company I think is taking advantage of about a $20 million grant. They’ve created something called Innovation Avenue, where they’ve taken a whole block in the historic Sixth District of Houston, and they’ve done wonderful stuff, not just in terms of smart appliances and smart electric meters, but also in helping homeowners get the benefits of energy audits that show them what particular things are gonna be the best payback in their particular situation.
A simple example is if they’re in a 100-year-old house without any insulation and they’re really keen on having a photovoltaic array. An architect might help them figure out where it’s plausible to put it so that it works without ruining the look of the historic house. I think that there are a lot of examples of efforts like this that are working, but in the big picture I think we have to worry about a populous that has doubts about the role of government, about truth and about science.