Our Views: Focus on Energy can take chills out of utility bills

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Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Brace for it. Another big chill is due to send shudders down your spine.

And, no, we're not talking about the next blast of arctic air.

Instead, we're talking about your utility bill. If you're struggling to scrape together enough cash to pay the one sitting on the counter, wait until the next one hits your mailbox.

If this winter seems unusually harsh, at least your senses haven't gone numb. In Tuesday's Gazette, reporter Catherine W. Idzerda pointed out that Janesville has already had 14 snowfalls of an inch or more. We've topped our winter snowfall average and endured the sixth most snow, at 37.4 inches, of any winter since 1948. Just two other winters since that date have registered more snowfalls.

What's worse is the frigid air. Utilities use a formula called heating-degree days to gauge home fuel needs. Through Sunday, the Janesville area had piled up 3,807 degree days. That's already second-highest total since 1948, topped only by 4,185 in the winter of 1976-77.

Add the dangerous subzero temperatures we're facing again this week, and, well, it's best not to even think about that power bill yet to come.

At least those whose homes are linked to municipal natural gas lines don't fear running out of heating fuel, like those using propane. With propane prices soaring and supplies dangerously short, it was good to see Gov. Scott Walker take action. On Saturday he declared a propane state of emergency that could prompt the Wisconsin National Guard into action. What the troops might do to help if sufficient propane isn't available, we're not sure. Last week, Walker also issued executive orders exempting propane truckers from hours-of-service rules.

On Monday, Walker took two more good steps in announcing the state would set aside $8 million to guarantee loans that propane dealers take out to buy gas and another $8.5 million to help low-income families pay for propane.

Likewise, we applaud those who are checking in on elderly relatives, friends and neighbors during this cold snap and those yet to come. We also commend residents who are helping neighbors clear their sidewalks despite the frigid air. With schools closed across the region Monday and Tuesday, those caring for children so parents can still go to work earn A's for effort.

But back to those hefty utility bills. It's too late to do much about them this year, other than to dial down that thermostat a tad, wear another sweater and pile on an extra blanket. If upfront costs have made you put off energy-efficiency improvements to your home or business, however, Focus on Energy stands ready to help.

Focus on Energy is a Wisconsin utilities' program designed to help reduce costs of energy-efficiency and renewable-energy projects. You can get energy-saving products installed free of charge. You can earn cash back for buying high-efficiency equipment and up to $2,000 off air sealing and insulation improvements. You can get $40 and free pickup to recycle an old working refrigerator or freezer. Use a certified builder to construct an energy-efficient home, and you could reap $1,100.

Maybe Focus on Energy, and those chilling utility bills, will provide the incentives you need to make your home or business more snug before next winter.

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