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Taking the sting out of energy bills

The Beehive State may not be in as tight a spot as California, but with recent hikes in natural gas prices, reducing energy bills is on the minds of many Utahns.

Residents are turning to the Utah Office of Energy Services, which offers programs aimed at helping people ease the pinch.

"We have probably doubled the number of calls on our hot line (in recent months), and we don't think it's going to change for the next six months, as people are worried about California's brownouts and blackouts," said Michael Glenn, director of the Office of Energy Services.

Weatherization Assistance is one program directed at helping residents deal with high energy costs. Targeting those with low incomes, the plan gives top priority to the elderly and disabled.

"We have a pretty good chunk of money right now from the federal government and local utilities for creating heating-efficient and cooling-efficient homes," Glenn said.

Depending on the amount of funding available, the program weatherizes 1,000 to 1,500 homes across the state each year, said program manager Michael Johnson.

Eligible homes receive an energy audit, a furnace inspection and other improvements, including insulation, reduced air infiltration, heating system tune-ups and window and furnace replacement.

The energy office also is encouraging the use of energy-efficient Energy Star appliances.

"When the University of Utah built new housing for the Olympic athletes, they made sure all the appliances were Energy Star," Glenn said. A number of types of appliances made by various manufacturers are now labeled energy-efficient. The Energy Star program is run jointly by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.

The Energy Star rating doesn't stop at appliances, however. Homes also can be touted as energy-efficient.

"An Energy Star home would have bills in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 percent of what a non-Energy Star home would have," said Glenn, adding that it's easiest to implement energy-saving innovations on a new home but that an old home can be upgraded as well.

And it doesn't stop there. Schools also can earn an Energy Star rating. In the Jordan School District, Oak Hollow Elementary recently was named Utah's first Energy Star school, and Rose Creek Elementary will be getting the same award in coming weeks.

"We go to the school and take a menu that they can pick from, such as having an energy audit or teaching students about energy consciousness," Glenn said. "School districts pick what they need, and the state helps them meet those needs."

In the Jordan district, "we helped them set up energy patrols where kids go around and give tickets to people who leave the lights on or have the hot water too hot," he said.

Duane Devey, energy services director for the Jordan School District, said it has 37 elementary schools and two middle schools involved.

"Last year we gave $71,000 to all the schools combined, and they saved $144,000. It's a great program; it is so fun to see what the kids have done."

The Cool Communities program is an effort to reduce energy consumption and increase air quality by promoting the planting of trees and shrubs and the use of reflective roofing and pavements.

"In August of 1999, we had NASA come out and fly over the Salt Lake Valley on some really hot days, and with their infrared thermography, they identified the hot spots," Glenn said. Those hot spots are caused by black roads and roofs and white sidewalks in areas without much vegetation. "This makes those places eight to 10 degrees warmer, so we try to target those areas by recommending a lighter color roof" and making other improvements.

Glenn said that the white Delta Center roof, for instance, reaches temperatures of 110 degrees, while the roof on the new courthouse is black and reaches about 160 degrees. "That affects the entire neighborhood" in terms of air-conditioner use, he said.