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It's simple to save on energy bills

| Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2007

As leaders from 190 nations met in Bali last week to forge a climate-change agreement and Congress hashes out an energy bill, consumers are steaming over soaring gasoline prices and heating bills.

The only upside from the energy-price surge is that if you cut household resource and energy consumption, you are saving money while helping the environment.

Most of the pain is being felt by those facing higher heating-oil prices, which have risen 83 percent over the past year as crude oil prices approached $100 a barrel. This winter's average fuel bill is expected to top $2,200, up from a record $1,433 last year, according to the Arlington, Va.-based American Homeowners Foundation.

Along with petroleum price increases, natural gas is becoming more expensive to find and transport. Coal prices have reached record levels, translating into higher electricity rates where coal is burned to create power.

There are many cul-de-sacs on the road to saving energy, though. My pet peeve is "energy offsets," little contributions you can make to invest in cleaner, greener energy somewhere else. These eco-penances may allay your guilt somewhat if you have an energy-gluttonous lifestyle, yet do little in directly addressing the main problem: how to live a less resource-intensive life.

While I have no problem endorsing clean energy, some of the best economic solutions to an ecological crisis should start in the home and are direct actions.

You don't need to be building a new home to reap energy savings. Some of the changes can be simple.

• If you drive frequently, trade in your gas guzzler for a more fuel-efficient model. Don't pay a premium, though. You may get a better deal on a high-mileage car that's not a gas-electric hybrid.

• Local utilities and states offer a raft of breaks for alternative and energy-efficient appliances. New Jersey, for example, gives rebates on photovoltaic technology, wind and fuel cells. For a complete list of incentives by state, see www.dsireusa.org .

• To see how much you can reduce your energy bill, it pays to do a carbon footprint of your lifestyle. Although there are several such calculators available, I recommend Nature Conservancy's.

• Pressed for time• Do a "Ten-Minute Energy Audit" at www.americanhomeowners.org .

• Leaky windows can account for as much as 25 percent of energy usage. If you are building new or remodeling, replace them with Energy Star-rated windows.

• Your home's biggest power or water users are spa tubs, refrigerators and washing machines. Buy Energy Star-rated appliances and look at their yellow tags to see how much money you can save. European countries have similar rating systems.

• Whether you rent or own, replace all incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents, which use almost 75 percent less electricity. Lighting alone accounts for a quarter of all household-energy use.

John F. Wasik, author of "The Merchant of Power," is a Bloomberg News columnist.

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