Saving America's energy - in foreign tongues

''Gosteria de pedir uma inspecao de conservacao de energia.'' If you want to find out how much precious heat is escaping from your home, that's how you ask for an energy audit - in Portuguese.

In Lisbon? In Rio de Janeiro? No, in Fall River, Mass.

Some 70 percent of the residents of that old seaport town - and of neighboring New Bedford, Somerset, and other Bristol County towns - are of Portuguese descent. In Fall River itself, some 20,000 of them speak no English.

That was the problem facing a year-old nonprofit energy conservation agency when it tried to offer energy audits to the owners of some of the Northeast's infamous old and drafty houses. The residents simply couldn't communicate with the auditors to tell them about last year's fuel bills, or to show them how to get down to the basement to check for cracks around the foundation.

Nor could they read the detailed, multi-page, computer-generated report on their home produced by Mass-Save Inc. (MSI), a consortium of 50 Massachusetts utility companies that has so far delivered nearly 50,000 energy audits to Bay State homes.

So MSI has translated its entire program, put Portuguese-speaking auditors to work, and teamed up with a local nonprofit service agency (the Portuguese Youth Cultural Organization, or PYCO) to help persuade the community of the value of the audits.

''We believe that the Mass-Save energy conservation program is the first in the nation to offer such a service in the Portuguese language,'' says MSI executive director John B. Roll.

It may, in fact, be a first in the nation in any language other than English. Mass-Save is hoping to offer programs in Spanishand Chinese, both of which could be popular among large ethnic groups in Boston. It now advertises and describes its program in Spanish, but has not yet developed a Spanish-language audit.

The program for the Greater Fall River area, announced Nov. 5, runs for a 12 -week trial period, during which MSI hopes to do some 2,000 energy audits in Portuguese. If it is successful, it could well expand statewide. According to Rui Avila, who is the Portuguese consul general in Boston, Mass., alone may have as many as 200,000 people of Portuguese descent - one of the largest concentrations of this national group anywhere in the United States.

Like everyone else in the state (and in neighboring Rhode Island and Connecicut), these Portuguese residents have been subsidizing the audit program through small charges added to their monthly electric or gas bills. Even though the audit itself costs only $10, however, they have not been able to take advantage of it for lack of the language program.

''Mass-Save was not really reaching the people,'' says Ron Moreira of MSI's Southeastern Region office. His office, which already had bilingual auditors on its staff, hatched the program. The major cost, he says, was for the translations, since even the printing of materials is done in-house.

The MSI staff, realizing they couldn't do the job alone, teamed up with PYCO, a social service organization representing some 3,000 Bristol County families. ''They know us very well,'' says Lizette Soares, director of PYCO. She plans to spread the word through advertisements and announcements in Portuguese-language newspapers and radio stations in the area, as well as through her own clients.

MSI spokeswoman Lydia Schmidt points out that the organization has other tricks up its sleeve as well. In the works: a ''Give an audit for Christmas'' program. It works like a gift subscription. Send $10 and the name of a friend, and the recipient will soon have an energy specialist with flashlight, clipboard , and portable computer clambering through his home from sump to rafters - and reporting in either English or Portuguese.

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