The days are getting shorter, the air is getting crisper, and the leaves are changing colors—all familiar cues that winter is around the corner. It also means that the heating season is nearly upon us, and with more Minnesotans staying home and concerned about finances than ever before, energy bills could have a major impact. This makes looking into energy-saving opportunities more important than ever.
The Clean Energy Resource Teams, or CERTs, a group that helps Minnesotans move forward with energy efficiency and renewable energy projects, say there are things that everyone can do to save energy, keep warm, and stay healthy this winter.
“Most people don’t know that October is Energy Awareness Month, and that’s OK,” shared Dan Thiede with CERTs. “What’s important—especially right now—is that they know they’re not alone. Many people are worried about bills and having to choose between heating their home or buying food and medicine. Everyone wants to be comfortable and safe at home in the winter, and we hope these tips will help.”
“After you learn what you can do in your own home, check in with your neighbor or a friend or family member that might be feeling particularly isolated so that they can find ways to reduce their energy bills this winter, too,” Thiede stressed. “The same goes for local businesses, farmers, and schools that could benefit from learning more about their energy options. We’re all in this together.”
1. Take steps at home—whether you own or rent—to save energy and money this winter
Quick heating tips: In the winter, set your thermostat at 68°F during the day and lower it at night and when you are away. Open window curtains or shades during the day to let the sun help warm your home, and close them at night. Also remember to close windows and doors when running the furnace and make sure your air registers are clear of furniture or other obstructions so that air can circulate. You can also seal your home from cold winter drafts with plastic film on the windows and draft snakes, sweeps, and weatherstripping for doors.
If you can, avoid using electric space heaters. They are an expensive way to heat your home, and some are a fire hazard. If it’s difficult to heat your home to 68°F without one, it’s a good sign that improvements are needed to your heating system or insulation.
Maintain your heating system: Heating and cooling account for a little more than half of the energy used in a typical Minnesota home, the largest energy expense for most homes. Your heating and cooling systems should be inspected annually and maintained. Consider replacing your furnace or boiler if it’s nearing the end of its expected life (15-20 years for furnaces, 20-30 for boilers), it requires expensive repairs, or it is inefficient.
Steps you can take for even more savings in your home (or discuss with your landlord if you rent):
• Get an energy assessment to see if you need more insulation (more on that to come)
• Install a programmable or smart thermostat
• Replace furnace filters every month
• Install ENERGY STAR heating and cooling equipment and appliances
• Install water-efficient faucet aerators and showerheads to reduce hot water use (look for the WaterSense label)
• Turn down the thermostat on your water heater to 120°F to reduce energy use and prevent burns
Energy-saving tips for any season: Replace old-style incandescent bulbs with LEDs and turn off lights when you are not in the room or when you can use natural lighting. Cook with your microwave or crockpot. Wash your clothes with cold water and clean the lint trap in the dryer before every load. Unplug electronics when not in use or use a smart power strip to do it for you.
2. Get an energy assessment to learn about ways to save and potential health and safety concerns
If you haven’t already, arrange to get an energy assessment to find out where you can save the most energy, and consider making larger investments for long-term energy savings. Contact your utility, likely Xcel Energy, Steele Waseca Co-op Electric, or CenterPoint Energy, to see what options they offer, or who they recommend. This assessment of how your house is functioning can help you decide what needs fixing, what needs upgrading, and what needs replacement. It will identify some simple low-cost measures you can take, such as weather-stripping doors, and it will determine more expensive but cost-effective measures, such as air sealing and adding insulation.
3. Save even more energy and money at home (and prevent ice dams) with weatherization
Adding insulation combined with sealing air leaks, also called weatherization, is one of the most cost-effective energy-saving improvements you can make to an existing home. It can cut heating and cooling costs by 15 percent or more. Typically, air infiltration causes drafts and a chilly feeling near windows and doors and in basements. An advanced home energy assessment will locate the air leaks (around windows, doors, vents, chimneys, wires, and light fixtures), and sealing those leaks must be part of any insulation job. The home assessment will determine the amount of insulation you have and how much more you need. The main culprit for most ice dams seen during the winter in Minnesota is inadequate insulation and air sealing in the attic.
4. Get help with bills through energy assistance programs with Three Rivers Community Action
The nation’s average energy burden is roughly 3.5%, but some Minnesotans spend 20-30% of their income on energy. If you are having trouble paying your energy bills, there are two income-qualified programs that might be able to help. The state Energy Assistance Program helps pay for energy expenses and the Weatherization Assistance Program reduces energy bills for the long term with insulation, heating systems, appliances, and more. Three Rivers Community Action serves the Faribault area and can help you get started with both programs. If you’d like to learn more about your bill and find more resources and support during COVID-19, contact the Citizens Utility Board of Minnesota.
5. Learn about shut-off protections
If your utilities get shut off or you are behind on payments, contact your utility, likely Xcel Energy, Steele Waseca Co-op Electric or CenterPoint Energy, to set up a payment plan and find out if they have affordability programs and your local Energy Assistance Program to request assistance paying your utility bills, if you qualify. During the winter, (Oct. 15-April 15), if you receive Energy Assistance or if your household income is under 50% of MN median income, you and the utility should establish a reduced payment plan. During the winter, if you make timely payments based on that payment plan, the utility may not disconnect you, or must reconnect you if you have been disconnected.
6. Consider if solar energy is right for your home
If you have an unshaded roof or area of land that gets a lot of sun throughout the year, solar energy might be a good fit for you and your home. Other technologies like air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, and insulation might better reduce demand for fuels needed to heat your home. Any one of these technologies might be right for you depending on your energy use or the solar resource available at your site. You can also contact your electric utility to see about other options like community solar and green pricing.
7. Make your next car an electric vehicle and drive less by biking, walking, and taking transit
It’s estimated that by 2040, 55 percent of all new vehicle sales in the US will be electric. There are currently more than 35 plug-in electric vehicle models on the market, most easily going over 100 miles a day, some twice that or more. EV charging infrastructure is in place and growing rapidly across Minnesota, too, especially on major corridors. Of course it’s also good to consider when biking or walking would be a healthy way to reduce your driving, and to take transit when and where it’s available.
8. Help businesses and farms in your community save with energy projects
Businesses and farms need help more than ever right now, and many of the same energy-saving steps you can take at home will work for their buildings and operations, too. There are also other funding opportunities like the Rural Energy for America Program (REAP) from USDA Rural Development and financing options like Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) that can support their energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Their utilities may also offer specialized energy assessments and rebates, too.
9. Help your community’s school go solar
60 school districts in Minnesota already benefit from solar, and there has never been a better time for even more schools to take advantage of clean energy opportunities. On top of the cost savings that solar energy provides for schools, access to solar allows students and teachers to connect STEM education with new technology on school grounds and with one of the fastest growing job markets in the state.
10. Explore careers in the quickly growing clean energy economy
If you’ve been considering a career in clean energy, you’re not alone. In 2019, there were more than 61,000 people working in clean energy jobs across the state—1 in 3 of them in Greater Minnesota. Some of the most common opportunities posted to the state’s Clean Energy Job Board over the last couple years have been solar installers, wind technicians, and weatherization specialists, all of which are good family-supporting jobs. There are also training opportunities available in Minnesota to prepare people for these exciting careers.