The federal government, with the help of Congress, is establishing a new career -- the "qualified energy auditor" -- as well as a virtual lock on the schooling and certification of the new careerists.

A qualified energy auditor is either self-employed or works for an electric or gas utility or other energy supplier, and is certified by a state government as being qualified to audit the energy use of residential and commercial buildings and estimate the cost and the savings of conservation methods.

Until now there weren't any energy auditors because, well, there wasn't any need. The government is changing all that.

It began with the residential conservation service program in the National Energy Conservation Policy Act, which required utilities -- and any heating suppliers who volunteered for the program -- to provide their customers with the services of energy auditors. the auditors were to give information on energy-saving practices and measures appropriate to the customer's home, including an on-site audit.

Once Congress created the need for energy auditors, it also had to provide for their training, to make sure they were qualified. So the legislators passed Subtitle F of Title V of the Energy Security Act, which established grants for a two-year energy auditor training and certification program.

Enter the far-thinking Department of Energy. As outlined in the Oct. 8 Federal Register (page 66970), the proposed DOE rules would establish the ultimate government standard for the energy auditor.

Because DOE was responsible for handing out money to the states for setting up training and certification programs, it decided that there had to be a standard, a benchmark so to speak, against which the state proposals for training and certification programs could be judged. The only way to do that, of course, was for DOE to put together its own program. So DOE developed a "model auditor training curriculum," which includes a "student manual, instructor's guideline and visual aides." The DOE program even offers courses to "train the trainers."

To make certain that all this work on curriculum is not for naught, DOE's proposed rule would bar the states from using any of their grant money to develop alternative curricula.

The rule kindly allows the states to determine how long their training should be, but DOE suggests that its experience showed "a minimum" requirement of two weeks in classroom training and one week in the field is necessary to properly train energy auditor candidates when DOE materials are used.

And DOE has some pretty firm ideas of what's necessary to certify energy auditors. First, there is recognition that a state can't be forced to have a certification process. But the proposed rule makes clear that 30 percent of any federal money in the program will go to those that do have such a process.

The notice also outlines just what DOE thinks certification should include -- a "validation procedure," a system to administer it, "reciprocity" for energy auditors who work in more than one state, a system to review certifications and even the certification fee.

Naturally, DOE also wants to prohibit the states from using grant funds for developing their own certification exams. Instead, DOE notes that it already has encouraged "private, nationally oriented certification companies" to develop the energy auditor certification program. DOE says the use of private national companies "will help provide some uniformity to certifications across the country." Chances are that the companies that helped DOE develop its exams are the same ones that are now prepared to provide them to the states.