The State of the Union is in a few hours, and folks are abuzz about what the president will say. Count me among those who are expecting a strong push for clean energy to create jobs and jump-start our economy, but I wonder if the president will spend much time discussing where we are right now as a country.

There is one word that comes to mind when I think of the state of our union: inefficient. We waste energy and money in our homes and workplaces as if we had an infinite supply of both.

Just consider the situation in the average home:

  • The air that we have paid to heat and cool us leaks out of the ducts before it ever gets to us.
  • Some of the air that does make it to us gets sucked outside, so we keep reaching for the thermostat in frustration.
  • The windows are single-paned and leaky, only slightly better than a hole in the wall.
  • The lighting is provided by little space heaters designed over 100 years ago.
  • The hot water takes minutes to arrive at the faucet, wasting water and energy in addition to time.
  • The air conditioner is old and on its last legs and can’t keep drafts and cold spots from popping up.

Not a pretty picture, but it doesn’t have to be that way. As the president has pointed out repeatedly, this is actually an incredible opportunity to improve our economic and environmental health. Why not fix all those leaky ducts and windows while replacing those old water heaters and furnaces? We can put Americans to work saving Americans money while slashing carbon emissions. We need significant performance-based incentives for homeowners to retrofit their homes to be more energy efficient, a la HomeStar. Folks who get hung up over the cost of a program like this are missing the point — we could be stimulating the economy with the money we waste on energy. And generally speaking, the unemployed don’t pay income taxes, so let’s get them back to work. The status quo of high unemployment and wasteful energy use will cost us all much more than any efficiency program.

This is only one component of the push for clean energy and lower carbon emissions, but it is a crucial one. We need to put a price on carbon to support the fledgling home efficiency industry as it grows to be millions of jobs strong, while we simultaneously shift away from wasteful old technologies.

There is actually one answer to our climate and energy and jobs questions and hopefully the president will continue to hit the nail on the head tonight.