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Free isn't really free when it comes to some home energy savings programs

It turns out, those "free" energy audits and weatherization programs offered by our local utilities aren't really free.

As with any rebate or "free" thing, somebody has to pay for it because, ultimately, it costs someone, something. In this case, that someone is you, the energy company customer.

Why does this matter right now, other than the hit you take in the pocketbook each month as an energy customer? Because the state is about to decide just how much those free programs should cost you.

On Sept. 14, the state Public Service Commission is set to vote on the state's goals for energy savings. Whatever the commission decides, utilities like Tampa Electric and Progress Energy will respond with a set of plans on how to achieve those goals.

They come in the form of "free" energy efficient light bulbs to customers, "free" home energy use checks, and rebates for energy efficient appliances.

"Utilities are allowed to pass those on to the rate base," said J.R. Kelly, the state public counsel.

For example, this year, Progress Energy customers pay $2.70 a month per 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity into the utility's energy saving program. The average customer uses about 1,200 kilowatts hours a month, so that's about $38 for the year tacked onto the bill.

Many customers fail to take advantage of the energy saving offers, even though they are paying for them. Suzanne Grant, a spokeswoman for Progress Energy, said some 30 percent of low-income customers eligible for the weatherization program do not use it. Progress Energy offers that to specific communities in its 35-county coverage area on a predetermined schedule.

But anyone can request the home energy check. It's called "free," but the reality is, as Grant states, "this is something we offer for no additional charge."

No matter which customers take advantage of the programs rich, poor, big house or small — every customer subsidizes the cost. Should a low-income person help pay for the new energy efficient air conditioning units installed in a multimillion-dollar home?

It's a tough balancing act, Kelly said, especially with so many people suffering from the economic downturn.

"It's a concern," Kelly said. "Do you not implement any program?"

Grant, the Progress spokeswoman, said the utility is concerned about how the state's final decision on the energy savings plan will affect customers struggling through tight financial times.

"If the commission goes with the more aggressive approach, that would increase the bills," Grant said. "We feel energy efficiency is really important. Our concern is at what cost to our customers?"

Progress Energy and Tampa Electric announced earlier this week that customers would save $4 to $5 a month based on 1,000 kilowatt hours of usage because of lower fuel costs. That savings could be offset and surpassed by the potential increase in the energy savings program charges.

So here's the Edge:

• Get your "free" home energy check. It's required to receive rebates. The check can be done online, over the phone or with a visit from someone from the utility. You don't need one every year, but it is a good way to determine how you can save money on your energy usage.

• Ask your utility about any low-income, energy-saving program assistance. These programs are not always available in every area covered by a utility.

• Contact the Public Service Commission with your concerns. The commission will make its final decision about the energy savings plans Sept. 14. What they decide will affect your electric bill. Visit: www.psc.state.fl.us.

Ivan Penn can be reached at ipenn@sptimes.com or (727) 892-2332.

Free isn't really free when it comes to some home energy savings programs 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 11:30pm]
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