Bracing for high energy costs

It’s not every day you find a Cabinet secretary wedged between a storm-window display and stack of space heaters at a local home-improvement store _ unless it’s Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.

He’s barnstorming the country these days with tips on how to cut home-heating bills, which his department expects to soar as much as 70 percent this winter. “As a longtime Boston resident, I know how tough New England winters can be,” he recently told a sympathetic audience at Lowe’s in Dedham, Mass. Elsewhere:

_ He praised everything from efficient Energy Star appliances to compact fluorescent bulbs that use 80 percent less electricity than the incandescent kind at a Kentucky General Electric plant.

_ He assured shoppers at a Manchester, N.H., Home Depot that “families can save hundreds of dollars by following some commonsense tips.”

The Bush administration’s conversion to energy conservation before 2005’s first cold snap comes with the Energy Department predicting big bills all winter.

Houses heated with natural gas could see bills averaging 48 percent higher than last winter _ 71 percent more in the Midwest. New Englanders who use heating oil are looking at a 31 percent jump. Electricity _ much of it generated by burning natural gas _ could be affected, too.

Companies from Home Depot and Lowe’s to Ace Corp.’s 4,800 co-operative hardware stores are eagerly fulfilling householders’ sudden interest in all things energy-saving, from weather-stripping to insulation to keep you snug.

There are “how-to” clinics where the weather-wise can learn how to size and install storm windows or find inexpensive ways to keep pipes from freezing and bursting at major expense.

Atlanta-based Home Depot, the No. 1 home-improvement chain with $73 billion in annual sales, stages weekly clinics at 2 p.m. Sundays in each of its more than 1,900 stores nationwide, Home Depot spokeswoman Jean Osta reports.

She adds that clinics range from instructions on installing Home Depot’s new CertainTeed SmartRoll insulation, a patented system that stops heat from escaping and prevents mold, to tips for wiring programmable thermostats so homeowners can dial down the temperature when they’re asleep or away.

For the cost of a thermostat, from $30 to $100, the Energy Department estimates your energy bill drops 1 percent for every degree, saving 10 percent or more if the setback is at least eight hours daily.

Can’t get to the store? Go online. At, Ace handyman Lou Manfredini takes online questions and offers timely electronic “Tips from the Toolbox,” including a lengthy discourse on which of eight kinds of caulk to use to seal out drafts.

The $140 billion-a-year home-remodeling boom has spurred sales of energy-efficient appliances, including windows and doors.

Privately-held Pella Corp., for one, has expanded beyond its Iowa headquarters to plants strategically placed in eight other states “to meet demand from homeowners who want double- and triple-pane wood, vinyl or fiberglass windows, whether they have energy-efficient e-glass or not,” says Pella spokeswoman Kathy Harkema.

Pella also added 470 workers at five Iowa plants since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August to meet demands for its impact-resistant windows that meet Florida’s tough building codes, drafted in response to Hurricane Andrew in 1992.

Winter heating forecasts also have caused a boom in alternate heating sources: Leslie Wheeler of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association reports a 59 percent increase in sales of wood-pellet stoves the second quarter over a year ago.

“We don’t have third-quarter numbers yet, but retailers and manufacturers of wood stoves and fireplace inserts tell us they’re having to speed things up to meet demand from consumers looking for a secondary source for a family room or home office so they don’t have to keep the thermostat up throughout the house,” Wheeler says.

Better-off consumers may be able to swallow a 50 percent spike in utility bills, but low-income families may find cold comfort this year.

Some senators are seeking to scale back $12 billion in corporate energy-development tax breaks to fund the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program, while Iowa Republican Charles Grassley, chairman of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, has suggested that energy companies donate 10 percent of their profits to it.

But so far lawmakers have rebuffed three proposals to raise the low-income energy program’s $2 billion budget to reflect higher energy costs. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, calls the decision “senseless and unconscionable.”

Some states stepped into the breach. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, for one, launched a Stay Warm PA initiative with local charities and community groups to provide an extra $30 million in low-income energy assistance and volunteer muscle to help low-income families winterize their homes. And New Mexico will give every taxpayer who filed a 2004 return a rebate of between $64 and $289, depending on family size, to cushion high gasoline and home-heating costs.

Meantime, the Bush administration’s new conservation consciousness has a new central character: the Energy Hog, a stomping, snorting cartoon symbol of American profligacy who will appear in public-service ads this winter advising people to stop pigging out on power. Hardly Jimmy Carter in a cardigan, but jawboning likely will be a cornerstone of federal energy policy for now.

(Contact Mary Deibel at DeibelM(at)