Sense & Centsibility Blog

Utilities: What would we do without them?

Can you imagine life without electricity and heat? During a Minnesota winter we’d be going to bed at 4 pm in December and have to sleep under a pile of smelly bear skins. We take our access to utilities like electricity and heating fuels for granted. But there is a lot happening on the other side of our utility meters that impacts the what, where, and how we get that access.

The Regulation Piece

Each state has a public utilities commission (PUC)—may be known by other similar names—that is charged with regulating policies, rates, and services for utilities like electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, or water (can vary from state to state.) Many of the regulated utilities are for-profit entities whose purpose is to maximize return to stockholders. You can imagine, then, the pressure they assert with PUC’s to raise rates. But, who is at the table to represent the consumer when a PUC is considering the rate increase request?

Several states, including Minnesota, have a Citizen Utility Board (CUB)—a non-profit organization funded by donations—to advocate on behalf of the consumer for reasonable rates and regulation of the utility industries. I am grateful to know CUB Minnesota is there for me. How could I possibly attend those PUC meetings and have the time to do the necessary research to support my case for lower rates?! Besides being at the table for us, CUB’s may also promote energy efficiency, clean energy, and even direct consumer assistance like reviewing utility bills. CUB Minnesota travels the state speaking to citizen groups about how to understand their bills, inform us of programs and rebates to offset the cost of heating and lighting our homes, and to promote ways to reduce energy use.

This last point particularly excites me! I came of age during the first energy crisis in the 1970’s and was president (succeeding my older brother) of our high school ecology club. Reducing energy use is deeply embedded in my psyche. And, the fact is, fossil fuels are a finite resource on our planet earth, depleting rapidly. Just as we reduce spending when our bank balance is getting low, we should also be reducing our energy consumption. Problem is, we can’t just sign into the earth’s account for a reality check of our remaining resources to inspire us to reduce our “energy spending.”

The Conservation PiecePerson checking thermostat

If conserving energy for the future doesn’t move you, maybe lowering your monthly bills will. CUB Minnesota’s website has tips on reducing energy use, including how-to guides.

Here are some of my favorite tried-and-true tips to reducing your energy use and your energy bill:

  • Leaky windows can be a big source of energy loss and cold air blowing in. Reduce the loss and increase comfort with reusable plastic film over the window. Besides the film and double-sided tape, all you need is a hair dryer, measuring tape, and scissors. Easy to install, and allows the sun to shine through!
  • Speaking of windows—open curtains in the day to allow the solar warmth of the sun to heat your home in the winter. Close curtains in the day during the summer to stop that solar heat from warming up the house.
  • Turn down your thermostat when the house is empty (during the work/school day) and at night when everyone is snuggled under a pile of blankets. Conversely, in the summer, turn up the thermostat. No need to keep the house cool for the dust bunnies.
  • Encourage (by lowering the thermostat!) family members to wear sweaters instead of cranking up the heat.
  • Wash clothes in cold water—full loads, and line dry.
  • Use CFLs and LEDs in light fixtures. Be the “Turn off the light!” nag.
  • Don’t stand in front of the open refrigerator wondering what to eat, decide first so you get in and out without cooling the whole kitchen.
  • Likewise, don’t let the cat decide how long to wait in front of the open door before it goes outside. (This can be a tough one!)

An energy audit is a great tool for discovering where your energy leaks are. Many utilities offer audits for a low cost or even free with qualifying incomes. Contact your local utility, CUB, or energy assistance provider.

I’m happy to have ready heat and electricity in my home! And, I want future generations to enjoy the same. Every effort helps. Every reminder to turn off the light or close the door nudges our ultimate “lights out” date further into the future.

For more saving tips, read How planning ahead helps save money and reduces stress and 4 simple ways to save money.

Author Mary Ellen Kaluza is a Certified Financial Counselor and frugality expert with LSS Financial Counseling.