July 16, 2008

Tackling Your Home-Energy Bills

By Barry Adams, The Wisconsin State Journal

Jul. 16--The air-conditioning unit that for the past four summers has hummed in the dining room window of Ruby and Myron Hauge's Stoughton home has been relegated to the storage shed in the backyard.

The shades are drawn during the day, the fans are on and more new storm windows are on the way for the 100-year-old home on the city's southeast side.

And for now, the air conditioner will stay put, in the shed next to the lawn mower and snowblower.

"We're trying to see if we can exist without putting it in and so far we've gotten along," said Ruby Hauge, 82, a retired elementary school librarian. "There's been hot days but we have ceiling fans and fans that we move from room to room wherever we need them."

The Hauges are not alone in their quest to save money on rising energy costs.

And it has state and local agencies working overtime to handle increased requests for energy assistance.

At Energy Services, the parent organization of the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund, calls for assistance have more than doubled when compared to last year.

Fewer customers of Madison Gas & Electric are behind on their bills when compared to last year, but for those that owe money, the average amount due is $320, up from $313 in 2007.

Calls have increased and visits to the Web site are up at Focus on Energy, the state's energy-efficiency and renewable-energy program. About nine years ago, the program offered rebates on 30,000 energy-efficient light bulbs. The program this year is projected to offer $2 rebates on 1.3 million light bulbs.

"We're in a place where a lot of people have more interest in making their homes more energy efficient and I think it's mainly from a financial focus," said Sara Van de Grift, director of residential programs for the Madison-based Focus on Energy. "I've never seen anything like this -- the growth in the industry and interest in energy savings."

The interest is likely to only increase. An air-conditioner may not be critical for summer survival, but in Wisconsin, a furnace is a must to make it through the winter.

Through June, the average cost of natural gas is up 36 percent over 2007 prices and it is expected to rise throughout 2008, said Steve Kraus, a spokesman for MGE. The utility has asked for approval to raise its rates by 7 percent in 2009. The bulk of the increase, 6 percent, would go toward rapidly rising fuel costs for its power plants.

If approved, it would add about $4.78 to the average residential customer's monthly electric bill of about $86.31, MGE said. The state Public Service Commission is expected to act on the request late this year.

"We're all focused on gas prices (at the pump) right now," said Pat Walsh, co-director of the UW-Extension's Solid and Hazardous Waste Education Center. "But higher natural gas prices could cause problems for families, businesses, farmers and local governments."

Walsh said that in most years, the price of natural gas declines in late spring and early summer, but this year it has continued to rise along with the cost of other energy sources like crude oil.

Tim Bruer, executive director of Energy Services, said his organization has identified 2,700 households in Dane County that are at risk. Some are out of fuel oil while others are facing disconnection or have already lost service for non-payment.

"They find themselves where their incomes don't begin to keep pace," said Bruer, who is also Madison's City Council president. "The demand for assistance has never been greater."

From October to May 15, the Keep Wisconsin Warm Fund gave out 8,000 one-time fuel-assistance grants averaging $400. He expects more requests this winter as costs rise and many utility customers are unable to catch up on their bills during the summer, when energy use is typically lower.

Bruer's organization is getting about 200 calls a day from around the state, about twice the number as last year at this time, he said.

"The gap between ability to pay and energy costs are continuing to widen and it's affecting all of us. But it hits hardest to those who have the least ability to pay," Bruer said. "This is the fastest-growing hidden crisis in Dane County and the state."

Van de Grift of Focus on Energy said her organization will issue more than $16 million this year in incentives. The programs provide cash to homeowners for purchasing more energy-efficient boilers, furnaces and air-conditioners.

One program offers rebates to homeowners who make improvements to their homes based on assessments from qualified inspectors.

An assessment can cost up to $350, but Focus on Energy offers a reimbursement to those who complete the top three energy-saving recommendations on the list. The average cost for the jobs is about $2,700.

"You're going to make that back in a few years," Van de Grift said. "It's not going to be 20 years. It's going to be a lot sooner."

Wally Ripp, 72, a retired plumber living in Sun Prairie, said he doubts he will turn the central air-conditioning on in his home this summer.

Ripp also doesn't use the dishwasher and this winter will keep the thermostat between 62 and 65 degrees.

"I'll wear some warm pajamas and a couple or three blankets," said Ripp, who grew up in a rural Waunakee farmhouse with no upstairs heat. "I'm quite frugal."


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