Higher heating bills let the sun shine in

ATURN OF a couple pages in this month's issue will take you from where this country is today with our energy supply to where we likely will be in the future. You go from a front-page story on sharply higher heating bills to a story about college students competing in a solar energy contest. Higher prices for natural gas, heating oil and propane will affect the vast majority of Americans who will pay

ATURN OF a couple pages in this month's issue will take you from where this country is today with our energy supply to where we likely will be in the future. You go from a front-page story on sharply higher heating bills to a story about college students competing in a solar energy contest.

Higher prices for natural gas, heating oil and propane will affect the vast majority of Americans who will pay more to heat their homes this winter. Utilities from the Northeast to Southern California are warning their customers that they will pay a third to a half more than they did last year.

Households heating with natural gas will spend an average $ 350 more this winter for fuel while those heating with oil will pay an additional $378 and propane users will pay $325 more.

Demand already is high, international supplies are tight, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have complicated the supply chain in the Gulf Coast even further. The fact that Americans still pay less for most forms of energy than citizens in many other countries is little consolation to those shelling out more money to keep their homes comfortable.

Surely, if you're a heating contractor, the increased prices of fuel present you with an opportunity to sell more energy-efficient equipment. If nothing else, the higher bills will drive home the energy-efficiency point to many consumers who have been reluctant to update their boiler or furnace.

Energy tax credits are available in some states to give them another nudge. The U.S. Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed into law this summer, provides tax credits for consumers and contractors that install energyefficient equipment.

As manufacturers continue to produce increasingly efficient equipment and customers get smarter about conserving energy, demand for natural gas, oil and propane may ease somewhat. Still, it is clear that Americans must do more than pursue an energy policy that depends largely on conserving fossil fuels and tapping offshore reserves. That's why the work done by groups of students from 18 colleges and universities in October in Washington is so encouraging.

Teams from the United States, Puerto Rico, Canada and Spain competed in the Solar Decathlon with a goal of designing, building and operating the most attractive and energy-efficient solar-powered home. Students competed in 10 areas, ranging from architecture, livability and comfort to providing homes with optimum energy for space heating and cooling, hot water, lighting and appliances.

All the students had to live in the houses and use energy generated for heating or cooling, cooking and bathing. Each house had to produce additional energy to power an electric car, which the students had to drive a specified distance. The students proved that all this was possible by using solar power.

We applaud these students as well as their advisers, sponsors and other people who helped them along the way, such as CONTRACTOR's hydronics columnist Mark Eatherton. We urge others to join this group of people committed to utilizing alternative energy sources. The Solar Decathlon should mark the start of an ongoing process of research and implementation rather than an end of a student contest.

Solar energy has caught our attention before, of course, back in the 1970s and periodically since then. As higher prices for gasoline, natural gas and heating oil dropped back down to acceptable levels, our interest in solar always has waned. We are counting on the generation represented by the students in the Solar Decathlon to keep the emphasis on renewable energy resources.

Our hope is that higher heating bills will get more people to look not only at more efficient equipment but also at solar, wind and other forms of energy. The federal and state governments can do a better job of using tax credits to encourage renewable energy resources as well as efficiency.

As contractors, you should become an active advocate for the wise use of energy. It's good for your business, your customers and future generations.