Preparation can help save energy

September 25, 2005|By DANIEL J. SERNOVITZ


Hagerstown resident Lisa Baker is bracing for winter.

Last year, in an effort to keep energy costs down, she used energy-saving techniques such as turning down the temperature on her water heater and covering her windows with plastic sheeting.

With electricity costs expected to increase by about 17 percent this winter, according to federal estimates, Baker recently armed herself with a wood stove her sister gave her, figuring that should enable her turn down her thermostat several notches more and cut her energy bills.

"I think that will help, and I'll try to keep the lights out and try to cut back on extra electricity (use)," Baker said.


Across the region and country, others are doing the same.

Roy Grady of Hagerstown said that in addition to getting a wood stove to lower his oil-heating bills, he is taking public transportation instead of driving and forcing himself to be more conscious of his energy usage.

"You've got to make it work," Grady said.

With a forecast of higher heating bills, officials are urging residents and business owners to re-examine their habits this winter.

"They need to take more responsibility themselves for lowering their consumption," said Mary Lou Kueffer, director of Maryland's Office of Home Energy Programs. "They need to pay more attention to their bill, not just the dollar amount, but their consumption.

"These little things like turning their lights out and turning their TV off, that may not seem like a lot, but it can add up over the course of the winter," Kueffer said.

Offsetting the increases

The U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration predicts across-the-board increases in heating costs this winter.

With record numbers of low-income residents expected to need help with their heating bills this season, Congress is considering a measure that would increase the federal government's contribution to the Low-Income Heating Assistance Program (LI-HEAP) from $1.9 billion to $3.4 billion.

Maryland, through its Maryland Energy Assistance Program (MEAP), could receive about $31 million of those funds to help low-income residents offset increases in their energy costs.

Kueffer, who oversees MEAP through the Home Energy Programs office, said she expects assistance applications to increase by at least 10 percent this year as borderline residents find themselves unable to pay their heating bills this season.

"We hope that LI-HEAP will be enough to make our purchasing power at least equal to where we were last year," Kueffer said. "We want to maximize the benefits up front to help reduce the crisis overall. ... The worst-case scenario is we would run out of funds and not be able to complete the season."

Kueffer said that with additional congressional funding, MEAP should be able to cover the increased demand for assistance, but without it, her department could be hard-pressed to offer season-long assistance through the program.

Through MEAP, the state pays utility companies on behalf of qualifying residents to help offset their monthly heating bills and provides funds for residents to buy oil or propane directly from local distributors.

In conjunction with MEAP, the state administers an Electric Universal Service Program (EUSP), which helps qualifying low-income residents pay off their outstanding utility bills, keep up with monthly payments and implement energy-efficient measures to reduce the amount of energy they consume.

The Department of Housing and Community Development offers funds to help residents winterize their homes.

To qualify for MEAP and EUSP, a family of four must have a monthly income of $2,419 or less, and a single person must have a monthly income of $1,196 or less.

Deanie Wilburn, who is director of energy programs for the Community Action Council and works with the MEAP program, said she has seen a marked increase in the number of area residents applying for assistance. She said that about 2,900 residents applied last winter. This year, with several months before the heating season officially begins, she has received 3,123 applications.

"I expect this season is going to be pretty hard," she said.

Wilburn said she fears some senior citizens who cannot afford to pay for both prescription medication and increased heating costs might be hesitant to ask for help.

"With the elderly, they're our hardest. Their pride is really hard to convince," Wilburn said. "They'll go without heat in order to pay for their prescriptions. Our biggest thing here that we tell them is everything's confidential."

Effect on businesses

CQI Associates President Richard Anderson said businesses will be affected by heating costs this winter, particularly medium and large-sized businesses already strained by increasing gasoline costs. CQI works with businesses to help them develop long-term strategies for reducing their fuel costs.

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