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Act now to reduce this winter's heating bills

Darin Hughes makes a living by making homes more energy efficient.

With heating costs this winter expected to soar by 35 percent - and maybe more depending how much damage Hurricane Rita does to natural gas rigs in the Gulf of Mexico - Hughes says he's already getting more calls from potential customers, curious about how they can use less energy and how much it would cost to do it.

"People are more willing to listen right now," says Hughes, the senior vice president for operations at Green Homes America by Hughesco in Amherst. "These energy costs are real. These energy costs are never going to go down. I don't know if people realize that."

Only time will tell if Hughes is right about prices staying high, but state regulators want to make sure people know that this year's heating bills will be the highest ever - and about $345 more than last winter.

That's why the state Public Service Commission agreed last week to spend an extra $500,000 to double the size of its annual advertising and outreach campaign to promote energy conservation and competition and make consumers aware of the payment options and financial assistance programs available to them.

"We're very concerned," says David Flanagan, a PSC spokesman. "We're kind of in uncharted territory with gas prices."

The PSC expects to kick off its program early next month, which officials hope will be early enough to get consumers thinking about signing up for budget billing plans and looking for ways to cut their natural gas use before it gets really cold.

The fear is that if consumers head into winter blissfully unaware of the sky-high natural gas costs until the heat has been kicking on and the first dead-of-winter bills actually arrive in mailboxes in late December and January, it will be too late to do much about them.

That means this is the time to get ready for winter, starting with little things like weather stripping windows and doors to block drafts and putting plastic over drafty windows.

More comprehensive - and costly - improvements, such as adding insulation to attics and walls and replacing older furnaces and gas water heaters, can cut energy use by 40 percent or more and pay for themselves in seven to 10 years, Hughes says. The higher natural gas prices get, and the longer they stay there, the more viable energy efficiency projects become.

If that isn't enough, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority offers aid for households meeting certain income guidelines that make energy efficiency improvements in their homes through certified contractors or certain community groups.

The new federal energy law approved this year also offers tax credits equal to 10 percent of the cost of insulation, exterior doors and windows, up to $500 lifetime with a $200 cap for windows, on purchases made in 2006 and 2007. Qualified new furnaces are eligible for tax credits of up to $150.

In the long run, programs that encourage greater energy efficiency make sense, since they cut consumers' bills while reducing the demand for energy. That's a trend that's been going on ever since the first energy crisis hit more than 30 years ago. Since then, the average National Fuel residential customer has reduced their gas consumption by about a third.

"Every little bit of gas that we produce in this country is needed," says Bruce Heine, a vice president at National Fuel Gas Co.'s utility business who oversees its natural gas purchases. "That's the fundamental reason why we can't absorb any glitch in supplies, like from (Hurricanes) Rita or Katrina."

e-mail: drobinson@buffnews.com

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