Energy crisis hits home

December 15, 2005|By CHRIS FICK

Marylanders have spent the last few months nervously watching gasoline prices. But as winter nears and prices fall, many of us are facing an even bigger potential economic wallop: rising home heating prices.

The numbers are sobering. The U.S. Energy Department predicts that residential and commercial consumers in Maryland will spend $862 million more than last year for heating oil and natural gas, a 48 percent increase. For the average Marylander, this means $374.

A colder-than-predicted winter could make even these projected increases seem rosy.

Rising energy prices threaten to leave many low-income and elderly Americans in the cold and many middle-income families struggling to make ends meet. The entire economy could be hurt when consumers find themselves with less disposable income.

Today's energy crisis isn't just the result of a tumultuous hurricane season but the consequence of decades of bad federal energy policy that has left us dangerously overreliant on fossil fuels. Even before this year's hurricanes, booming demand for oil and natural gas left suppliers unable to keep up, with prices soaring.

Until we address our overreliance on unstable energy sources, we can get accustomed to more crises like this one. Americans increasingly realize this, which is why many are buying more-efficient cars, driving less and being more careful about how they use energy at home.

More state government leaders across the country are also getting it, and many, including those in Maryland, have taken action to promote energy efficiency and clean, renewable energy sources.

For example, the General Assembly passed an appliance efficiency standards bill and a renewable energy standard in 2003 that will decrease our dependence on traditional energy sources and reduce the impact of future energy price spikes.

But if we want to ease the pain of higher energy prices this winter, we have a lot more work to do, fast.

Now is the time for Maryland officials to launch an emergency effort to promote energy efficiency and conservation. With the first snowfall behind us, there is still time to weatherize and improve the energy efficiency of thousands of homes and businesses.

What would such an effort look like? In 2001, California, facing a summer of possible rolling blackouts, launched an ambitious program to promote energy efficiency and conservation. It cut its electricity consumption by more than 6 percent, saving over $600 million and halting rising electricity costs. There is no reason a similar program in Maryland couldn't be just as successful in saving natural gas or heating oil.

A massive efficiency and conservation effort will help to ease the pain of what threatens to be a long, tough winter. And once winter is over and the immediate crisis has eased, we need to keep up the effort because high prices are not going away.

During the coming General Assembly session, our lawmakers and governor should work to expand upon the energy efficiency standards in place. Adding additional standards for products such as residential furnaces and boilers, coupled with a sustained investment in energy efficiency, could keep a lid on rising energy demand.

Another important step would be to grant a one-week tax holiday for purchasing insulation, storm windows and efficient furnaces and water heaters.

The state could also distribute inexpensive yet effective technologies for free, including low-flow showerheads and pipe wraps - simple technology that can save consumers considerable money.

The Public Service Commission should only approve rate increase requests from utilities if they commit to improving energy efficiency.

Maryland is far behind other states in the amount of support it gives to solar power. It should be increasing subsidies to make this source of energy more affordable and appealing to Marylanders.

A better and more stable energy future is possible - if we roll up our sleeves and get to work. With a winter of high heating bills on the horizon, there's no better time to start than now.

Chris Fick is a policy associate with the Maryland Public Interest Research Group. His e-mail is

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