While energy-efficient mortgages are a good idea, there's a more obvious solution, according to Cliff Majersik, executive director of the Institute for Market Transformation, which advocates for energy efficiency:
Make all mortgages - not just specialized ones - account for energy use.
"The fact is that energy-efficient homes have much lower foreclosure and delinquency rates. So that's a market failure, that we're not giving homeowners credit for buying good, efficient homes," Majersik said. "The challenge is that there are processes that have been in place for a long time, and there's pretty clear evidence that they've let us down."
The House climate bill includes a handful of provisions that would reward buyers of efficient homes. For example, the Federal Housing Administration would be required to insure at least 50,000 energy-efficient mortgages over three years, and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would make the kind of wholesale changes to underwriting guidelines sought by Rashkin, Majersik and others.
Advocates also say national efficiency efforts have been let down by the codes that set minimum requirements for efficiency.
"Energy codes have existed for a long time, but they haven't really done anything," said Aleisha Khan, executive director of the Building Codes Assistance Project, a coalition that helps state and local governments implement efficiency requirements.
Certification programs like Energy Star "pull the market" by spearheading efficiency efforts, "and then you've got codes, dragging up the bottom," she said. "Code is not Energy Star. Code is common sense."
Yet there is no nationwide building code. Instead, states base their own requirements on the International Energy Conservation Code, which is usually updated every three years.
Some states consistently follow the latest iteration of the IECC, but others adhere to years-old versions, and a few "have done virtually nothing at all," said Jean Boulin, program manager in the U.S. Energy Department's building energy codes program.
States are legally bound to review and consider adopting the IECC, but can opt out if they deem the standards inappropriate - in fact, several have no mandatory code. Officials in Alabama, for instance, have declined to follow the code, citing their status as a home rule state.
"There is no ability for any agency to penalize states if they don't follow the law," Khan said. And with so many homes being built to such various requirements, enforcement is tricky. "It's a mess," she said.
A measure in the climate bill would change that by establishing a nationwide code. The bill calls for a 30 percent increase in efficiency over the 2006 IECC upon enactment, a 50 percent jump by 2014 and a 75 percent increase by 2029.
Khan and Boulin said there are other signs that more effective codes and more efficient homes are on the way. For example, Khan said the 2009 IECC is 15 to 20 percent stricter than the previous version -the biggest change so far.
"I'm confident that we're moving forward quite well," Boulin said. "We're finding these are terribly cost-effective things to do, and people shouldn't avoid them."
But further progress depends on knowledgeable consumers, Boulin and a number of other experts said.
Homebuilders say they'll build more efficient homes when buyers ask for them, but demand won't grow until more people understand the benefits of efficiency.
"Consumers really, really need more information about efficient homes," Khan said. "They just aren't getting it."
Edward Vine, an energy efficiency expert at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the California Institute for Energy and the Environment, agrees.
"That's where I'd focus most of my energy," he said. "We have to change the mentality of some people who say, 'We have energy-efficient homes, so why aren't people knocking down the doors?'"
The Fuersts may not have given efficiency much thought before they bought their house, but the couple - along with their friends and family - has a newfound interest, and say they'll try to find another Energy Star home if they ever move.
"The house is heated very evenly," Krista Fuerst explained. "There are no cold spots and no drafts." They set the thermostat at 67 degrees - much lower than would have been comfortable in their rental - and turn it down to 57 when they leave in the morning, but the temperature never drops that low, even after 12-hour days. So far their heating bills have been just over half what they paid last winter.
"Now that we have lived in an energy-efficient house," she said, "it would be very difficult to go back."
This article originally appeared at The Daily Climate, the climate change news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.