A money-back benefit for some Floridians who scrimp on energy

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The city-owned utility company in this small community has undertaken what is believed to be the nation's first local rebate program for solar and other energy-conserving devices.

Residents who take advantage of the program can couple the 20 percent utility-bill rebate with the 40 percent federal tax credit and thereby make energy conservation an almost instant money saver.

Why would a utility company want to pay people to bill them less?

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There are two reasons, according to the city energy conservation coordinator, Robert Miller.

''We are a bedroom community for Walt Disney World, which means we are experiencing a tremendous growth rate - about 20 percent a year,'' he says. ''And the cost of expanding our generating capacity has increased 10 times in the last 10 years.''

To provide the power to the growing community will cost the city about $250 per kilowatt under the conservation program. The cost to do it by providing ''new capacity power'' (expansion) will cost about $2,500 per kilowatt, Mr. Miller says.

''The energy problem is coming down to the local level,'' he adds. ''We are facing it now because of our phenomenal growth rate. But it is something that will be eventually felt all around the nation, especially in the high-growth areas.''

Yet even conservation is not the entire solution. Next year, Miller explains, Kissimmee Utilities will add a gas-turbine generating plant. But he says that won't solve the problem, much of which he attributes to an abundance of energy-eating homes.

''We have many cases here where people's utility bills are more than their mortgage payments,'' he explains, adding that energy efficiency in homes is ''grossly misunderstood.''

Proper site orientation, the way a house is placed on the lot, can knock a substantial percentage off the electric bill. Heat pumps can save a household up to 50 percent, compared with conventional systems in some parts of the country. But, as Miller points out, it is more costly to retrofit a house for efficiency than it is to do it when the house is built.

With proper site orientation and an extra $1,000 or so, a builder can make any house energy-efficiency, according to Miller.

For those reasons, Kissimmee Utility officials feel that retrofitting alone will ease but not solve the problem. For every solar panel that goes atop an existing Kissimmee home, there are probably three new energy-inefficient houses being built.

Fighting the energy problem on the retrofitting front is a sensible, but nevertheless losing, proposition. Thus, the utility's staff has conceived another campaign: Discourage builders from tossing up energy-wasteful houses in this high-demand area.

''Somebody has to pay for this excessive and wasteful energy consumption,'' Miller says.

''It cannot continue to be the old customers who are paying for the increased growth,'' he goes on. ''We don't need any more low-energy-quality homes. They degrade our generation system.

''What is happening is, builders are coming into this area from all over and putting up homes. They sell the homes and they leave. The new residents call us up and complain about their $200 electric bills.''

What Kissimmee officials want to do is set energy standards on new housing and impose fees on builders who erect only minimum-standard houses. Ideally, this would discourage low-energy-efficient construction; and in the cases where it didn't, it would help defray the cost to the consumer.

Obviously, builders aren't too enthusiastic about the idea.

Miller says the proposal would likely have to go through several public workshops involving the builders and city officials before it is even drafted and considered for adoption.

Meanwhile, many of the utility's 15,000 residential customers are trying to plug into the rebate parogram, which the utility is funding through a $500,000 settlement resulting from a lawsuit for undelivered natural gas.

To make sure the customer gets his money's worth out of the rebate program, the utility has set standards on equipment and installation.

While the ceiling on the individual rebate is $500, the officials feel that it is high enough to make conservation a sound investment.

A good solar water heater, which will save about 25 percent of household electricity, costs about $2,000. With the city utility's rebate and the federal government's tax credit, the cost is cut by 60 percent. So for $800, Miller reasons, the solar water system would pay for itself in one to three years' time , depending on the size of the household. After that the system would be making money.

In many areas of the country, energy-conserving devices have proved to be very functional marketing tools for new houses. But when you have a high demand for housing, a competitive price is apparently all that is needed.

It is not unusual, Miller says, for a family to come to town and buy one of the first houses it sees because it is priced at about $40,000.

''They don't think about the energy efficiency,'' Miller complains.

This city is facing a problem that is common to most of the nation's growth areas. Simply, it is unable to build new capacity fast enough to keep up with growth. The utilities have a system in which they can tap into a cooperative grid temporarily to increase their own capacity. There is concern, however, that the statewide grid will be unable to meet the demand for energy next winter, Miller warns.

''The only thing distinctive about the energy situation in Kissimmee is that we are facing it earlier than many other places,'' Miller says. ''But eventually this situation will develop all over the nation.''

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