Efficiency Maine in USA Today

Consumers have more options to reduce energy bills


As winter begins and federal tax credits for home efficiency upgrades end, consumers need not despair: Options to reduce energy bills are expanding.

States and utilities are spending more on energy-efficiency programs such as home energy audits. At the same time, an array of energy-saving products arrived this year, such as LED light bulbs that replace incandescents and the Nest thermostat that automatically adjusts heating or cooling when no one’s home.

Gas and electric utilities will spend more than $6 billion in rate-payer funds this year to help customers slash energy use — an amount that’s been growing by about $900 million a year since 2006, according to Steven Nadel of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

“We expect spending to increase in the next few years,” Nadel says, as more states require that utilities meet efficiency targets and utilities look for the cheapest source of power.

“We’ve basically discovered the cheapest energy in America: It’s energy efficiency,” says Michael Stoddard of Efficiency Maine, a quasi-state agency that helped 5,000 households last year pay for energy upgrades.

He says the average home upgrade costs $8,300 but cuts energy use 40% and saves $1,400 annually.

“The value covers the cost,” says John Augustino of Honeywell, which makes energy-efficient equipment. He says an increasing number of utilities are paying all or part of a home energy audit’s cost, depending on its scope. Also:

•In at least 20 states, utilities have programs that allow customers to pay for efficiency improvements through their monthly bills, according to a study of 15 of these “on-bill financing” programs released this month by Nadel’s group. Half of them have started within the last two years.

•In 30 states, 63 utilities are offering customers detailed data about their energy use and suggestions for reducing it. Opower, a private company that provides the data, partnered with its first utility in 2007 and expects to add dozens next year.

Alex Laskey, Opower’s president, says a resident’s behavior greatly affects a home’s energy use, and once he understands that better, he’s likely to change his habits. He says more utilities buy his data partly because of state incentives. He expects incentives will continue even though federal stimulus funds, which helped boost state spending on energy-efficiency programs, end next year.

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