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Energy FAQs


The following section provides answers to some frequently asked questions posed by Minnesota consumers. Our Energy Information Center is available to answer other energy-related questions at 651-539-1886 or 800-657-3710 or energy.info@state.mn.us.

Clean energy

  • Are there state rebates for solar electric or solar thermal installations?


    The state is not offering a solar rebate program at this time. A $2.5 million solar electric rebate program ended in October 2010, and the state’s $500,000 solar hot water and solar air heat rebate program ended in August 2011. Both programs were funded through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. To be notified of future state funding opportunities for solar, sign up for email news and designate solar as an area of interest.

    There are other incentives to install solar systems in homes and businesses. The Residential Renewable Energy Federal Tax Credit is in place through 2016 and it applies to solar electric and solar thermal systems. Your utility may offer grant, rebate or loan programs to help fund solar initiatives in your home or business.

    Renewable energy financing opportunities and programs may be available for rural customers through the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Energy for America Program. Several tax exemptions, including a state sales tax exemption for solar systems in general, are available to Minnesotans.

    For a comprehensive list of incentives to install renewable energy systems, please visit the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

     

  • Does Minnesota have a Renewable Energy Standard and is the state in compliance with the standard?


    Yes. Minnesota has a standard and is on track to meet its long-term renewable energy goals. Minnesota's Renewable Energy Standard (RES), one of the nation's strongest renewable energy standards, requires utilities to provide 25 percent of their total electrical generation from renewable sources by the year 2025. Electric utilities that owned a nuclear generating facility as of Jan. 2, 2007, such as Xcel Energy, must provide 30 percent of electrical generation from renewable sources by 2020.

    Initially enacted in 2001 as the Minnesota Renewable Energy Objective, the law first required that utilities only "make a good faith effort" to obtain 10 percent of their Minnesota retail energy sales from renewable sources by 2015. In 2007, the law was amended to establish a Renewable Energy Standard with mandated renewable energy goals beginning in 2010. All utilities, with the exception of Xcel Energy, were required to obtain 7 percent of their Minnesota retail sales from renewable energy in 2010. Xcel, which provides half of the state's electricity, was required to generate 15 percent of its 2010 Minnesota retail sales from renewable sources.

    To date, all utilities in Minnesota have met or surpassed the Renewable Energy Standard. A report to the Minnesota Legislature summarizes Minnesota’s Renewable Energy Standard law and documents each utility’s compliance.

     

  • Where can I find information and recommendations on wind energy systems?


    The Division of Energy Resources (DER) provides a variety of information on wind systems. Visit the wind section of the DER website to access a range of wind information, including guidance on hiring a renewable energy contractor, small wind resource maps and site assessments, and frequently asked questions. Other helpful wind information sources include:

     

Energy conservation

  • What are some basic low-cost and no-cost ways to save energy and reduce my energy bills?


    Whether it’s the middle of the hot summer or the dead of winter, there are a number of basic measures you can take to conserve energy and save money. In winter, use a programmable thermostat and set it to automatically turn down the heat at night while you’re sleeping and when you’re not at home, cover drafty windows, seal air leaks, close your fireplace damper, and maintain your heating and hot water heating systems.

    In summer, use a programmable thermostat to turn down air conditioning when not at home, clean and maintain your AC system, keep shades pulled and doors and windows closed during hottest times of the day, and air dry dishes and dry clothes outside. For all seasons, there are a number of energy-saving measures such as:

    • Turn off computers and monitors when not in use

    • Plug home electronics, such as TVs and DVD players, into power strips and turn the strips off when equipment is not in use

    • Turn off lights when not in use

    • Have an advanced home energy audit to identify ways to make your home more energy efficient (weather-strip doors and windows, seal air leaks, add insulation, etc.)

    • Take short showers

    • Wash only full loads of dishes and clothes

    • Replace traditional inefficient incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or light emitting diodes (LEDs)

    • Look for the ENERGY STAR label when purchasing new appliances, lighting, and electronics

    • Maintain your heating and cooling systems or consider replacing them if they’re old and inefficient

    For a host of energy conservation tips, check out the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Savers website. Also, the Division of Energy Resources offers an energy guide called “Appliances, Lighting & Electronics” that covers many energy-saving suggestions. 

     

  • How much electricity do home electronics and other plug-in devices use and what savings opportunities exist for these devices?


    According to a study of Minnesota homes, plug-in devices (excluding major appliances and lighting) consume about 15 to 30 percent of the typical home’s electricity usage. Home electronics (televisions, computers, and audio equipment and their associated peripherals) account for about half of this usage. Space heaters, dehumidifiers, and other portable space conditioning equipment make up another quarter. The study found that an average of 300 to 600 kWh per year worth of savings opportunities per home can be achieved by low- and no-cost means such as:

    • Enabling computer power management

    • Manually unplugging devices that draw standby power when not in use

    • Manually turning off devices that are left on when not in use

    • Using “smart” power strips to eliminate standby power consumption of peripherals (e.g., DVD players) when the main device (e.g., television) is turned off

    • Using timers to eliminate electricity use by devices that are only used at certain times of the day

    Computer power management was identified as having the greatest savings potential. The study found that about two-thirds of desktop computers in homes are either left on all the time or are idle for long periods each day. Moreover, 80 percent of desktops do not have sleep/hibernate mode enabled for the computer. The study suggests that simply enabling the sleep/hibernate mode for these computers could reduce electricity use among these systems by about 50 percent. The full study is available at “Electricity Savings Opportunities for Home Electronics and Other Plug-In Devices in Minnesota Homes.”

     

  • When is it time to replace my old refrigerator?


    Many refrigerators and freezers will continue to operate for 15-20 years or even longer. But whether or not these appliances are really working efficiently is another question. It is probably time to replace your old energy-hog refrigerator when it becomes too expensive to operate.

    For instance, refrigerators built in the 1970s may use five times more electricity than new, high-efficiency ones and may cost $200 per year more to run than ENERGY STAR models. A 20-year-old refrigerator could use 1,700 kWh of electricity every year, compared with about 450 kWh for a similarly sized new ENERGY STAR model. At an electrical cost of 11 cents per kWh, that represents a savings of $140 per year and a potential payback of 7-9 years. Also, if your old refrigerator requires costly repairs (exceeding a few hundred dollars), then it probably makes sense to replace it with an energy-efficient model.

    To calculate the energy savings you will realize by retiring your old refrigerator, visit the “Refrigerator Retirement Savings Calculator.” For more on ENERGY STAR refrigerators; also, for more information on refrigerators and other appliances, check out “Appliances, Lighting & Electronics.”

     

  • How can I reduce the cost of lighting my home?


    Lighting a typical Minnesota home accounts for about 10 percent of the energy needed to power one’s home. One of the best ways to reduce your electricity bill is to replace traditional incandescent light bulbs with ENERGY STAR-labeled compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) or light emitting diodes (LEDs).

    CFLs use one-third of the energy and last up to 10 times longer than an incandescent bulb with the same light output. Also, CFLs have overcome many of the problems associated with their initial production in the 1990s. Newer CFLs have electronic ballasts which eliminate most of the flickering and slow starting of earlier models, and ENERGY STAR standards have improved reliability and expected lifetimes considerably.

    LEDs have a clear advantage when it comes to estimated lifetimes, which makes them a good choice for locations where bulb change-outs are either difficult or costly.

    To view a comparison of different light bulb choices based on cost, efficiency and environmental concerns, and for more information on a range lighting facts, check out “Appliances, Lighting & Electronics,” an energy guide published by the Minnesota Division of Energy Resources.



  • Do ceiling fans in rooms save energy?


    Yes, ceiling fans can save energy—but only in the summer. A ceiling fan during hot, sticky days creates a wind chill effect that will make you more comfortable in your home, even if it’s also cooled by natural ventilation or air conditioning. If you use air conditioning, a ceiling fan will allow you to raise the thermostat setting about 4 degrees F with no reduction in comfort. In temperate climates, or during moderately hot weather, ceiling fans may allow you to avoid using your air conditioner altogether. A ceiling fan is recommended in each room that needs to be cooled during hot weather. Turn off ceiling fans when you leave a room; fans cool people, not rooms, through the wind chill effect.

    Ceiling fans are only appropriate in rooms with ceilings at least eight feet high. Fans work best when the blades are 7-9 feet above the floor and 10-12 inches below the ceiling. Fans should be installed so their blades are no closer than 8 inches from the ceiling and 18 inches from the walls.

    In the winter months, ceiling fans will not reduce your heating costs, because the movement of air currents will cool our bodies slightly. It is important to note that the wind chill effect will cool our bodies regardless of the direction of the fan blade, because moving air makes us feel cooler. This cooling effect may prompt residents to unnecessarily raise their thermostat and overheat their homes.

     

Energy efficiency and home energy improvements

  • What causes ice dams and how can they be prevented?


    Although sometimes thought of as a problem with roofing or attic ventilation, ice dams are actually caused by the presence of warm, moist air in the attic, combined with snow on the roof and the right weather conditions. When heat leaks into the attic, it melts the underside of the snow on the roof, which then flows down the roof surface until it reaches a cold spot (such as the eaves or soffit). The ice buildup can back up under the shingles, damaging them and allowing water to leak to the ceilings and walls below.

    To avoid these types of problems and eliminate most ice dams, attic air leaks around wires, plumbing vents, light fixtures, or chimneys must be sealed with caulking or spray foam, and attic insulation should be installed to a minimum R-50. Sealing air leaks not only prevents ice dams, it also saves energy and saves money on your heating bill. An advanced energy audit that uses an infrared scan can help pinpoint trouble spots. If snow and ice must be removed, then hiring licensed roofing contractors that use steamers is strongly recommended. Check out our fact sheet on ice dams.

     

  • My home needs a serious energy overhaul. What should I do first?


    The state’s Division of Energy Resources strongly recommends having an advanced energy audit conducted on your home before embarking on energy improvements or remodeling. An energy auditor will assess the performance of your home and identify what needs fixing, upgrading or replacement. An advanced energy audit will include:

    • A visual inspection for problems with the attic, walls, crawlspace, foundation, basement, windows, doors, and roof.

    • A review of energy bills to identify usage and savings opportunities.

    • A “blower door” test to determine air leakage rates.

    • Infrared scans of walls, attic, and foundation to locate possible air leak sources.

    • Efficiency and safety testing for combustion appliances (furnaces, boilers, gas fireplaces, water heaters) to ensure proper operation and safety.

    Energy audits can be facilitated by your electric or gas utility, nonprofit community energy organizations (e.g., the Minnesota Center for Energy and Environment or the Neighborhood Energy Connection), and private energy auditing contractors. To find a list of private energy auditors, visit the Minnesota Building Performance Association website.

    Once you have identified work that needs to be done, you will need to select a contractor to do the work or you may do some of the work yourself. For guidance on this, see our “Home Envelope” energy guide.

     

  • What is the most basic home energy improvement that I can make to my home?


    After you have had an energy audit, the auditor will point out that the most basic home energy upgrade is tightening your home envelope by sealing air leaks. Before investing in a new furnace or adding insulation, you need to take steps to keep the outside air out and the inside air in. Air that leaks through the ceiling, walls, foundation, and other areas are significant sources of heating and cooling loss. Stopping air leaks is the best way to conserve energy, save money, and increase comfort.

    Fortunately, air infiltration is one of the easiest forms of energy loss to fix. The process requires only a careful inspection of your home and some inexpensive weather-stripping, caulking, spray foam, and filler materials. Air leaks into the attic—specifically around chimneys, vents and wires—are especially common. Basements, gaps around windows, doors, fireplaces and electrical boxes, and cracks in plaster are other areas that need sealing.

    For more on air leaks and plugging those leaks, see our “Home Envelope” energy guide.

     

  • I need more insulation in my home. Where should I add insulation, what kind of insulation is best, and how much is needed?


    Adding insulation, combined with sealing air leaks, is one of the most cost-effective energy-saving improvements you can make to an existing home. Adding insulation can cut heating and cooling costs by 15 percent or more.

    While every house is different, the basic rule of insulating is the same for all homes: install insulation on any surface separating a heated space from an unheated space—attics, walls, basement walls, floors and crawl spaces. Even if your home already has some insulation in these areas, there can be great benefits in adding more insulation, especially in your attic. An advanced energy audit of your home will include an insulation assessment to identify the amount of insulation you have and how much more you need.

    The amount of insulation (measured in terms of thermal resistance called R-value) and the type of insulation that is best varies from home to home and depends on several factors: (1) how much insulation is currently in place, (2) the accessibility and space available for the insulation, and (3) the climate zone of the home.

    For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) divides the country by zones; Minnesota falls into two of the colder weather zones that call for higher R-values.DOE offers an “Insulation Fact Sheet" to help determine the best type of insulation and the amount of insulation needed. The state’s Division of Energy Resources offers an excellent guide on insulation called “Home Envelope."

     

  • Are radiant barriers an effective energy-saving product for Minnesota homes?


    No, radiant barriers in Minnesota are not worth the investment in terms of energy savings.

    Radiant barriers are a layer of reflective film installed over the top of attic insulation in existing homes or between the roof deck and rafters in new construction. They are theoretically installed to reduce summer heat gain and winter heat loss. Radiant barriers are frequently sold as an energy-saving product, with claims of significant reductions in both heating and cooling costs. The potential benefit is primarily in reducing air-conditioning cooling loads in warm climates in homes with insufficient insulation.

    Field tests by the Oak Ridge National Laboratory suggest that attic radiant barriers are not an effective way to reduce heating or cooling loads in Minnesota. Adding conventional attic insulation and sealing attic air leaks is a much more cost-effective way to save energy in your home. In fact, as the attic insulation level increases, any potential benefits of a radiant barrier decrease.

     

  • How should I select a contractor for my energy improvement project?


    Selecting a contractor should be treated like any major purchase: Be precise about the job expectations and the products and services being purchased and be diligent and thorough in investigating the credentials and integrity of your contractor.

    Identify several potential hires for your job via usual sources such as the Internet, Yellow Pages, word of mouth, friends, professional associations, etc., and get bids and references from at least three contractors. Check with the Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry at www.dli.mn.gov to make sure the contractor is licensed and check with the Better Business Bureau to see if there are any complaints or actions against the contractor you’re considering.

    For more on selecting a contractor, see the “Home Envelope” energy guide. A guide for selecting a renewable energy contractor is also available.

     

  • Are there financial incentives (rebates, etc.) to help finance residential energy improvement projects?


    Yes. Many local utilities are offering incentives to help finance residential energy improvement projects such as air leak sealing, new insulation, replacement of heating and cooling equipment, and more. Also, loan programs for energy improvement projects are available through Minnesota Housing and local community energy groups such as the Center for Energy and Environment and the Neighborhood Energy Connection. Unfortunately, the residential energy efficiency federal tax credit that was in place from 2006-2011 was not renewed. For a full list of current financial incentives, visit the website of the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

     

  • How do I calculate the HERS Index rating on my home?


    You will need to have a home energy rating conducted by a certified home energy rater. The home energy rating system (HERS) uses a scoring method developed by the Residential Energy Services Network (RESNET). The results provide a rating score for the home, referred to as the HERS Index rating. This rating quantifies the energy performance of a home and requires a great deal more information than just the air leakage and square footage of the dwelling. To locate a home energy rater, go to the RESNET website and enter your zip code to search for a rater in your area.

     

  • Are tankless water heaters better than traditional storage water heaters?


    Maybe or maybe not. Tankless, or on-demand, water heaters provide hot water only as it is needed. Tankless water heaters typically cost more than conventional storage water heaters, both for the equipment and the installation. In some homes, upgrades to the gas or electric service may be required to handle the fuel demands of a tankless water heater.

    The primary benefit of a tankless water heater is that the heat seepage (“standby loss”) of a traditional storage tank system is eliminated. When compared to an older, inefficient and poorly insulated storage water heater, a tankless unit can save energy during operation. As the efficiency and insulation levels of a storage tank system increases, however, the energy savings differences between the systems decreases.

    Additionally, large families or those with high hot water demands may periodically experience insufficient hot water supplies. However, in some applications, tankless systems may be the most efficient option.

    Cabins or vacation homes that have infrequent habitation or large homes with guest bathrooms located some distance from the storage tank system may benefit from a tankless system.

     

Financial assistance for low-income households

  • My utility provider plans to stop my gas service. What can I do to prevent that?


    The first thing you must do is contact your energy service provider directly and try to agree on a payment plan. To be protected under Minnesota’s Cold Weather Rule and to prevent a shutdown of your heat source between Oct. 15 and April 15, a payment plan must be in place.

    If you’re unable to resolve the disconnection issue or agree to a payment plan with your utility, you should contact the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and file a complaint. The PUC’s Consumer Affairs Office will provide dispute resolution assistance. Call the PUC at 651-296-0406 or 800-657-3782 or go online to Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

     

  • I am a low-income person and unable to pay for the full cost of my heating bills. Where can I find help?


    You should visit the Stay Warm Minnesota section of our website to learn about a list of resources to help keep your home warm and safe. The site includes information from several sources that can help ease the financial burden of utility bills:

    • Utility Programs. Consumers who have problems paying their utility bills should contact their energy provider as soon as possible. Minnesota has the “Cold Weather Rule” that prohibits utility shutoffs from Oct. 15 to April 15. However, you must apply for protection with your utility or it has the right to disconnect. Most utility companies in Minnesota also offer several bill paying options.

    • Energy Assistance Program. Low-income households may be eligible for the Energy Assistance Program (EAP), which is a federally funded program through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and administered by the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The program is designed to assist with energy bills, primarily in the form of grants to the energy provider on behalf of the household. Funding is limited for this program, so consumers are encouraged to sign up early. Learn more and get an application here.

    • Weatherization Assistance Program. The Weatherization Assistance Program assists low-income households by doing energy conservation audits and safety inspections, upgrading wall and attic insulation, reducing air infiltration, and testing, repairing, or replacing home mechanical systems. The Minnesota Department of Commerce administers this federally funded program through the U.S. Department of Energy. Learn more and get an application here.

    • HeatShare. HeatShare provides emergency assistance with heating and utility bills on a year-round basis. Funds are used for natural gas, oil, propane, wood, electricity, and emergency furnace repairs. Celebrating 25 years of keeping Minnesotans warm, HeatShare is a voluntary nongovernmental program of The Salvation Army.

    • The Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP). MFIP is the state's program for low-income families with children. MFIP helps families meet their basic needs while working to achieve economic self-sufficiency. MFIP assistance payments include both cash and food assistance. MFIP participants are also provided employment services and work supports. In addition, MFIP families may be eligible for crisis funds through the MFIP Consolidated Fund that can be used to pay utility bills. Families can apply for these services at their local county human services agency.

    • Emergency General Assistance Program. The General Assistance (GA) Program serves as Minnesota’s primary safety net for single adults and childless couples. The GA program provides monthly cash grants for vulnerable people whose income and resources are less than program limits. The grants can be used to pay for utility bills. To apply for the GA program, contact your county human services agency.

    • Energy Efficiency Home Improvement Loans. Minnesota Housing offers affordable home improvement programs to residents of Minnesota that can be used for energy efficiency projects. The Fix-up Fund is a statewide program that offers affordable, low-interest, fixed rate loans that can be used for energy efficiency improvements. The Rehabilitation Loan program assists low-income homeowners in financing basic home improvements that directly affect the safety, habitability, energy efficiency or accessibility of their homes.

    • Energy Rebates and Incentives. Federal, state, and local government may offer tax credits, loans, grants or other incentives for energy investments. Utility companies may also offer rebates, loans, and incentives. The best place to find current descriptions and information is from the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency. Enter your state and utility selection to find what may be available for your energy project.

     

     

Green careers and energy-related careers

  • Where can I find information about green careers and energy-related careers?


    Visit the ISEEK Energy website to learn about green careers and training. The site includes profiles on over 50 green occupations that had hiring demand in Minnesota over the last two years. It will describe green careers, research on green employers, and green career paths. ISEEK also offers information on green training, volunteer opportunities, certifications, and apprenticeships. It will teach you how to “green” your resume and how to move into a green job from where you are right now.

    Visit the ISEEK Energy Careers website to learn more about energy careers and training. The site includes information on entering and advancing in an energy career. It provides a list of energy fields of study and energy programs, short-term and low-cost energy training opportunities, industry-recognized certifications by occupation, and energy apprenticeship programs. Also, check out the Division of Energy Resources website for information on energy career paths and training.