By LANE BLACKMER
Capital News Service
LANSING—Homeowners can save money this winter with help from a new program that makes loans to increase energy efficiency.
Since September, the Michigan Saves Home Energy Loan Program has approved 50 loans for energy improvements, said operations manager Laura James.
Eligible improvements include replacing windows, adding programmable thermostats, installing furnaces and replacing faulty heating systems.
Participating contractors are also pre-approved by Michigan Saves.
The home improvement loans are available in 36 counties, including Allegan, Macomb, Clare, Lapeer, Montcalm, Gladwin and Ottawa.
“Our primary goals are to make energy savings sustainable over the long term and provide local jobs to Michigan contractors,” she said.
Loans range from $1,000 to $12,500. So far, the average is about $6,500, James said.
The program was initially financed through the Public Service Commission’s (PSC) Low Income and Energy Efficiency Fund, but has since received four additional grants. The home loan program was allocated $3.4 million, James said.
James said the money will keep building because repayments cycle back into the program.
She said the improvements generally pay for themselves through savings on energy bills within five to 10 years.
Judy Palnau, media and public information specialist at the PSC, said it’s too early to tell how much money participants will save, but it will lower their bills.
The cost per unit of heating energy is expected to be lower this winter than last. But Palnau said it’s expected to be slightly colder. That means the demand for heat might be higher, costing homeowners more than last year.
According to Palnau, about 80 percent of homes in the state are heated with natural gas.
However, she said Michigan uses propane for heating homes more than any other state, which can get costly.
The state used 372.6 million gallons of propane last year, down 5.8 percent from 2008. But propane prices are projected to be up from last year, she said.
Overall, Palnau added, homeowners will likely to pay the same or slightly more for heating than last year.
Before the loan program, the state already offered some incentives to get rid of inefficient appliances, Palnau said.
Michigan Saves hopes to lower the costs and need for new energy sources.
“The real benefit here is that you’re delaying the need for additional electric generation and delaying building new power plants,” she said.
“People are overpaying,” said Andy Knaut, energy auditor for Home Energy Answers in Grand Rapids. “It’s not just the cost of energy, it’s the homes.”
Home Energy Answers is one of the contractors approved to work on projects in seven counties including Montcalm, Allegan and Ottawa.
Knaut said so far he hasn’t done any work for Michigan Saves.
“It’s a good program, but it’s part of an industry that’s very slow in getting going,” he said. “There has to be better marketing.”
James said loans aren’t available everywhere in the state is because the limited coverage of banks involved with Michigan Saves, but the program intends to expand statewide.
James also said a loan program for businesses to improve energy efficiency is in the works for next year.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.