Energy Costs Generating Light-Bulb Solutions

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 25, 2009

They don't have the sex appeal of windmills or the cool factor of solar panels but cost a fraction of the price. In fact, their methods can be as low-tech as plugging a leaky air duct.

Governments and utility companies across the Washington region are starting to roll out new "energy-efficiency" campaigns with the potential to lower bills, carbon emissions and the area's dependence on foreign oil without building a single coal or nuclear plant. Energy experts say that they can reap large benefits by encouraging people to retrofit homes with changes as simple as new shower heads, light bulbs and refrigerators.

Efficiency programs were popular in the 1980s and early 1990s but receded to the background during the more recent era of deregulation. Now, concerns about global warming, rising fuel prices and price tags in the billions of dollars for new power plants have prompted new interest. States from California to Massachusetts are mandating that utilities offer subsidies on home energy audits, discounts on energy-saving light bulbs and appliances, and rebates or low-interest loans to homeowners who install insulation, replacement windows or weatherstripping along the sides of a doorway. And the federal government would increase spending on efficiency programs under President Obama's stimulus plan.

With some of the country's most aggressive efficiency standards for devices from washing machines to traffic signals, Maryland is helping to lead the way. Proceeds from emissions-permit sales to power plant owners are allowing the state to provide millions of dollars to help low-income homeowners conserve energy. Last month, state regulators ordered Pepco, Baltimore Gas & Electric and three other utility companies to offer their residential and business customers a suite of energy-saving strategies this year, including a $40 home audit whose cost can be waived if the customer agrees to have energy-saving light bulbs installed throughout the house.

Maryland won't pay for you to save energy. All customers will bear the cost of the new programs with a monthly surcharge of up to $2.50 on their monthly electric bill, according to preliminary estimates -- even if they do nothing.

Skeptics say it's not clear that the programs will make a real dent in the region's energy use, and many homeowners would not see significant savings unless they invest thousands of dollars. Still, experts predict that the investments eventually will pay for themselves and then some, helping depress Maryland's demand for power by the equivalent of three coal-fired plants.

"You'll break even or make money if you do nothing more than screw in a few fluorescent light bulbs," said Douglas Nazarian, chairman of the Maryland Public Service Commission.

The District is adding and beefing up similar programs. And in Virginia, where Dominion Virginia Power says it has sold 2.4 million low-energy bulbs and received tens of thousands of hits on its Web site section of energy-saving tips, the General Assembly is considering several bills that would require utilities to come up with efficiency programs. Like leaders in Maryland and the District, Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has pledged to reduce the state's carbon footprint, setting aggressive goals of a 19 percent reduction by 2025. Both states and the District also have pledged to tap into alternative power sources and offer high-tech devices that cycle down thermostats and air conditioners when demand peaks.

"No, you're not going to invite all the neighbors over to show off your insulation," said Steve Nadel, executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. "But the savings can be considerable."

D.C. resident Elizabeth Fox said she was thrilled to take advantage of an existing city program to get a lengthy, free audit of her 100-year-old leaky home in Northwest after she received a flier in the mail. "We got a written report we kept referring back to" while renovating the home's third floor, she said. She added new insulation and a super-efficient washer, dryer and hot-water heater, and air conditioner. Her heating bill last month was well over $500, "so I can't say we've stopped the leaky air," she said. But with the third floor in use for the first time, "Our energy bills have stayed the same, so that's a savings."

At least 12 states have mandated energy-efficiency programs since 2006, among them three New England states that have adopted rules requiring that utilities show they have pursued such strategies before they are allowed to build new power plants, Nadel said.

Obama's stimulus plan would help retrofit 2 million homes and three-quarters of federal buildings to be more efficient, saving low-income homeowners $350 a year in utility costs, on average. Former president George W. Bush's fund to bail out the financial industry revived a little-known federal tax credit of $500 for efficiency investments that had expired in 2007.

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