A holiday epiphany: high energy prices drive efficiency

Families are coping with rising home heating bills, and while some State assistance is available to promote energy efficiency, many will be left out in the cold.

Legacy oil furnaces usually have an AFUE of 68%-72% and waste oil with pilot lights. (Image Credit: Energysavers.gov)

After a lull of unseasonably warm temperatures, winter arrived in the northeastern United States over the holidays. Now families need to heat their homes, and I observed several neighbors who were feeling the chill in my hometown, and a pragmatic willingness to embrace energy efficiency.

The mercury fell below the freezing point over the past week in Pennsylvania and further north up the Atlantic coast. Many homes in this region, including my mother's, are kept warm by obsolete oil broilers that are far less efficient than today's models.

Further, the cost of heating oil has soared, and cuts in federal assistance could affect millions.

It is not uncommon for my mother and her neighbors to be paying in excess of US$400 per month for their home heating oil budget. Families living in her township are typically financially stable, but some who are retired on fixed incomes or have fallen on hard times are struggling to cope with the cost.

Turning down the thermostat does little to solve the problem; newer, more energy efficient heating systems are badly needed. My mother's neighborhood has no natural gas main available (only the newer developments have that option), so oil baseboard heat remains most viable option for most households.

Renewables did not come up in discussions, but I observed more rooftop solar panels than ever while driving around the county. Perhaps there is a lack of awareness?

Regardless, heating systems are very expensive to install, and while many families in Churchville are able to pay, some have less financial flexibility. I'm making the assumption that this is especially true in less affluent townships. The good news is that support is still available.

There are energy efficiency loan programs available for credit worthy families to upgrade their homes, but in some cases State funding has run its course. Pennsylvania is currently promoting geothermal heat pumps, but some countries have more comprehensive options. Local utility rebates and federal tax credits may also apply.

It is worth asking what happens to families who may not have great credit or extra cash but still require assistance? They are not receiving government assistance of any kind, because their incomes are too high to qualify. Yet, they too need some help to address their rapidly rising living expenses.

My holiday epiphany is that people want to save money on energy, and factors such as rising home heating oil prices are driving demand. There is a great opportunity to promote energy efficiency while appealing to the family dollar, and families who are not technically "poor" should qualify for assistance too.

Saving energy is good for families, and it's good for the environment. The energy landscape of today is very different than it was when most homes were built, and that must be addressed. Plenty of unemployed people could unroll insulation.

Whether lawmakers will listen or be able to act is another story.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com