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Go green to get green

Utilities offer rebates, and maybe a free fridge, to consumers who save energy or water.

September 02, 2007|Marty Graham | Special to The Times

Consumers have plenty of incentives for going green at home these days: rebates for conserving energy and water or harnessing the sun's power, even offers of free trees.

And although qualifying for most of the rebates may mean buying higher-priced appliances and other goods, state energy companies have special programs to work with home- owners and renters of all income levels.

Interest in conservation has been so intense, according to Peter Hidalgo of the Southern California Gas Co., that "our outreach programs have people who speak 250 languages and dialects."

Many of the rebates offered are mandated by utility regulators and are available anywhere in California.

"People started to come to us after 'An Inconvenient Truth' and ask about renewable resources," said Kim Hughes, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, referring to Al Gore's 2006 documentary. "There's a convergence of interest in conservation."

In Los Angeles, the Water & Power Department is a one-stop shop for most incentives and rebates for customers. Staff can help with solar installation and appliance rebates, identify "smart sprinklers" that qualify for rebates and arrange for refrigerator pickups.

"If someone is thinking about updating a kitchen, for example, we can help them pick an Energy Star refrigerator that will use less energy and save them money," Hughes said.

"If they recycle the old one, we'll pick it up, give them $35 and some energy-efficient lightbulbs."

This includes the old refrigerator that sits in the garage cooling a six-pack of soda to the tune of $200 a year in energy costs.

Customers also can get rebates for dishwashers and washers and dryers that use water and power more efficiently -- anything that cuts the cost of use during the appliance's lifetime.

In addition, Southern California Gas, for example, offers rebates for attic and wall insulation, which can save hundreds of dollars each year, depending on their heating and cooling use.

"The money is going through the roof and the sides of your house every time you run the furnace or the air conditioner," said the gas company's Hidalgo.

Still, energy rebates may not be the best deal for every consumer, said Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based utility consumers advocacy group TURN, the Utility Reform Network. Many of the high-efficiency appliances cost hundreds of dollars more than basic versions, she noted.

As an example, Spatt cites the rebates available for more costly clothes dryers.

"What about clotheslines? Do we really think people save more by using expensive dryers when they could dry them for the $3 it takes to buy a clothes line?" Spatt asked. "The bottom line for customers is the most frugal thing we can do is use less energy."

And although rebates for installing solar-power systems can cut the cost of a system by 30%, consumers still need at least $15,000 to put such a system in, Spatt said, making it a purchase many people can't afford.

Many new homes are built to be more energy-efficient, with better insulation and window and door seals, efficient appliances and solar power.

But going green can be expensive for people with older homes or less available cash.

Start with a home audit

Where can a conservation-minded consumer start? Both the power and water companies offer free home audits, when they review power and water usage and make recommendations to owners.

Some utilities, including Southern California Edison, offer a self-service audit online, said Gene Rodriguez, the company's director of energy efficiency.

"We ask just a little information and use their billing history to give them good advice," Rodriguez said. "The most common advice includes replacing old lightbulbs and appliances with more efficient ones."

But the advice also can include major changes and the financial help to get them done.

Qualifying low-income families can get special assistance both for labor and the cost of new windows and doors and furnace repairs and replacement through gas-company programs, Hidalgo said.

One- or two-person households with less than $29,300 gross annual income are eligible; larger families can have higher incomes and qualify as well. But just 40,000 of the nearly 1 million households in the company's service area that are eligible have taken advantage of the aid.

Low-income LADWP families can even get a free replacement refrigerator, Hughes said, provided that the one they're using now is more than 10 years old and bigger than 15 cubic feet and there is a grounded, three-pronged outlet in the home for the new appliance.

Condominium owners, landlords, tenants and businesses are all eligible for green incentives, Rodriguez said.

"In the past five years, we've saved 4 billion kilowatt hours of energy, enough to power 5,000 homes for a year and the equivalent of taking 250,000 cars off the freeway," Rodriguez said.

More than 100,000 residential customers have taken advantage of these rebates to buy energy-efficient appliances, Rodriguez said.

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