Homeowners look to Focus on Energy freebies as winter chill hits utility bills

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


December's deep freeze has kept temperatures about 20% colder than normal, and much colder than last year's balmy run-up to the holidays. That will put a chill on home heating costs, though it's too early to say exactly how much, utility representatives say.

Temperatures in northeastern Wisconsin have been 20% colder than normal — and 60% colder than last December. That could add at least $50 to a typical customer's utility bill this month, said Kerry Spees, spokesman for Green Bay's utility, Wisconsin Public Service Corp.

Some homeowners aren't waiting to see their next bill. They're adding insulation and taking other steps to save energy.

To aid them, the state's Focus on Energy program is providing something new for energy-conscious utility customers — something for nothing.

The freebies include energy-saving light bulbs, faucet aerators and shower heads, along with wrap for water heater pipes.

Since it was created more than 10 years ago, Focus on Energy has traditionally offered rebates on everything from furnaces to light bulbs and insulation. But a program introduced in the Madison area last year marks the first time Focus is offering, in essence, something for nothing.

Budget constraints mean program managers can't offer it citywide or in every community. In Milwaukee, the program is being offered for a few more weeks in several neighborhoods including Bay View, Walnut Way and Jackson Park-Layton areas.

Future locations for the initiative, known as the Express Energy Efficiency program, include Hartford, Muskego, Appleton, Beaver Dam, Eau Claire, Monroe, New Glarus, Oconto and Oconto Falls.

A first step

One of the program's goals is to broaden the reach of the Focus on Energy program beyond homeowners who have the cash to spend on more costly improvements, such as air sealing and insulation injected into the walls.

"We look at this as a first step to get people excited about energy savings. It's very simple, easy and free," said Donna Bambrough, program marketing manager for Focus on Energy.

The freebies are also available to homeowners who take extra steps to save on energy use. Anyone who spends several hundred dollars on a home energy audit is eligible for the giveaways.

On Wednesday, design consultant Nick Schliepp and his crew at S&E Insulation were dropping off shower heads and faucet aerators as they started an insulation project at a Wauwatosa home.

December has been busy for Schliepp, due in part to the chilly weather, but also because of the Focus on Energy rebates for homeowners who weatherize their homes.

The National Weather Service this week gave an indication of how cold it's been. Through Tuesday, December has been the 16th-coldest on record in Milwaukee, with temperatures 7 degrees below normal.

That's 19% colder than normal, especially compared with last year, when temperatures in December hit 60 a few times and stayed above 32 most days.

Earlier this fall, We Energies had forecast that home heating costs would fall 3% this winter. However, that was based on an assumption that the weather would be normal, based on a 20-year average.

The big chill has been accompanied by a run-up in the price of natural gas. Prices on the futures trading market last week hit their highest point in 29 months, closing at nearly $4.50 per 1,000 cubic feet.

"This is exactly the way we didn't want to enter the heating season," said WPS spokeswoman Spees. "Colder temperatures not only increase natural gas use, they also tend to put upward pressure on natural gas prices in the marketplace. And it's been cold over much of the nation."

Fortunately, most utilities buy their gas ahead of time and store it underground for use during the winter.

"We try to balance purchases of gas on the spot market with gas that's in storage and gas bought in long-term contracts, so that helps with any of these kinds of spikes in volatility on the spot market," said Brian Manthey, a We Energies spokesman.

But nothing makes home heating prices rise like an extended period of cold weather, when furnaces run constantly.

"For a consumer, it really is usage that's going to drive the bill," said Annemarie Newman, spokeswoman at Alliant Energy Corp., a Madison utility.

Thanks to expanded U.S. production of natural gas, home heating costs for the full winter are expected to remain well below the costly winters of 2005-'08.

Alliant and Madison Gas & Electric Co. had forecast that this winter's heating costs would be similar to or slightly lower than last year. In Eau Claire, Northern States Power, a unit of Xcel Energy, projected a 4% to 6% increase in heating costs through March, compared with last winter.

In the Milwaukee area, the Weather Service is forecasting temperatures to remain colder than average for the rest of December.

Of course, Wisconsin could also finish the winter with milder weather.

"This early cold snap doesn't automatically mean higher total heating season costs," said Steve Kraus, a spokesman for Madison Gas & Electric. "A stretch of above normal temperatures can offset higher costs during a period of unusual lows."

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