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Get More Cash For Your Energy Efficiency

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States also offer incentives for homeowners.

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Under a $300 million federal rebate program that started last month, consumers can trade in their energy-sucking appliances for more efficient models, but there are other ways to save money while making a home more energy efficient.

Most utilities, states, and even some local governments offer their own programs to give homeowners a break when they buy new appliances, insulate, or install alternative energy sources like solar or wind power. The federal government also recently increased its two tax credits to help pay for more efficient heating, cooling and water-heating equipment, as well as wind, solar and geothermal systems and fuel cells.

The programs run the gamut with some states funneling hundreds of million of dollars into certain programs and through utilities, said Justin Barnes, a policy analyst at the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency, or DSIRE.

"The tricky part is finding all these programs," Barnes said.

The DSIRE lists all available incentives and rebate programs by state on its website at www.dsireusa.org.

The greening of American homes saves consumers money, protects the environment and helps stimulate the broader economy. By adding more insulation to the attic and walls, for example, homeowners can cut their heating consumption up to half. And whether homeowners tackle projects themselves or hire professionals, that spending helps retailers such as Home Depot (HD), Lowe's (LOW) and Sears (SHLD), manufacturers such as Masco's (MAS) Milgard Windows or GE (GE) appliances, and ripples through other industries affecting companies like Builders FirstSource (BLDR).

Of course, homeowners may still have to shell out thousands of dollars to make energy efficient improvements, and that might be a tough decision in lean times.

"They care about putting food on the table, paying the mortgage and college tuition," said Steven Nadal, executive director at the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, or ACEEE. "This is not a top priority in a lot of households."

So far, the effects of the federal tax credit has been minimal on Tom Higgins' business in Boulder, Colorado. Homeowners just don't have access to the cash they once did, the owner of Superior Home Improvements/Siding said, and he believes the government should double the credit cap to $3,000 from $1,500 to motivate consumers.

"The concept is well received, but it's still not enough," he said.

On the other hand, there's been great success with New Jersey's Clean Energy Program administered through the state's utilities, said Tom Testa, owner of Home Energy Diagnostics in Bloomfield, New Jersey. Since the program's launch in 2003, its funding and publicity have increased.

"There are a lot of younger people calling because they want to do the right thing," Testa said, "and then I get calls from Wall Street types who want the best return on their home improvements."

Megan Blank can't wait to see her heating bills this winter. Last year, she spent $500 a month to heat her three-bedroom house in Bloomfield. She had Testa perform an energy audit last February after putting up with cold drafts for seven years.

"We had to walk around with sweaters on top of sweaters," Blank said.

Testa discovered there was no insulation in the walls and only a tiny bit in the attic of the 1940s house. In May, Blank had professionals insulate the attic, basement and walls. The total cost to retrofit her home was $5,300, but the state utility program is picking up about half that tab because Blank will cut her energy consumption by at least 25 percent.

Utilities have long been the big funders of energy efficient programs, pouring about $3 billion a year into them, according to the ACEEE.

But some states have also been leaders. Seventeen states offer rebates on energy-efficient products, 16 of them give personal tax credits for energy-efficient home improvements and eight exempt sales tax on certain environmentally friendly products like dishwashers, ceiling fans and programmable thermostats, according to DSIRE.

Cities and counties are also playing key roles. In Maryland, for example, both Howard and Prince George's counties offer a property tax credit on solar panels and geothermal heating systems. That's on top of a geothermal and solar energy grant program the state offers.

These programs are all part of a larger public push to protect the environment, from Copenhagen to Cincinnati (which offers tax abatements for green homes). The revolution is happening one Energy Star appliance at a time.


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