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It's often said that the cheapest and most painless way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions is to use energy more efficiently. But there's a huge gap between what's theoretically possible and what happens in real life. That's a problem for the more than a dozen states which are now promising to make big and quick cuts in energy use.

In our series on energy use, NPR's Richard Harris visited Vermont to see how that state saves energy. For today's final installment he returned home to Maryland, a state that's hoping to slash electric use by 15 percent in the next seven years.

RICHARD HARRIS: To find out why there's such a huge gap between theory and practice, I turn to Michael Dworkin. He's been involved in one of the most sustained and successful state programs - Vermont's. Part of the reason, he says, is electricity is still pretty cheap.

Mr. MICHAEL DWORKIN (Involved in Vermont's Energy Reduction): Even high energy bills are typically only two to four percent of a household's discretionary income. You know, they're a third of what they spend on health care, they're a third of what they spend on the car, they're a quarter of what they spend on housing.

HARRIS: For example, a 15 percent cut in my electric bill would save me $24 a month - less than I spend on coffee. Prices are climbing as fossil fuels get more expensive, but Dworkin says it doesn't make sense to wait for the pain of higher bills.

Mr. DWORKIN: Efficiency is by far the better choice.

HARRIS: I got some inkling into why people aren't jumping at chances to save energy and money by hanging out at my local hardware store. On Earth Day, the local utility was giving away compact fluorescent light bulbs, CFLs. The CFLs were also on the shelves for a heavily-subsidized price.

Harry Jaeger from southern Maryland picked up an armful.

Why are you buying a bunch of bulbs today?

Mr. HARRY JAEGER (Maryland Resident): 'Cause they're only 99 cents. Everyone says the CFLs are always expensive. Since they're 99 cents, we're decided to go for a few.

HARRIS: How many do you have in your house right now?

Mr. JAEGER: None, which is why we're buying some.

HARRIS: Where are you planning to put them?

Mr. JAEGER: I'm not sure yet. We'll figure out what burns out first in the house. That's where we'll go.

HARRIS: This brief conversation revealed a lot about the challenges of promoting energy efficiency. First off, Jaeger had no idea he could've saved a lot on his electric bills even if he had bought CFLs for $5 or $10 a piece. Each bulb saves $12 a year, assuming it's in a lamp that's on a lot. So even now Jaeger is wasting money by waiting for his old bulbs to burn out.

And if it's hard to get people to spend a few dollars on light bulbs, consider the challenge of getting them to spend hundreds or even thousands of dollars on insulation or energy-saving appliances.

I talked about this conundrum with Malcolm Woolf. It's his job as the head of the Maryland Energy Administration to get the state to its ambitious goal.

Mr. MALCOLM WOOLF (Maryland Energy Administration): We know that we can give people incentives to buy energy-efficient appliances, to make a building envelope more efficient, to reduce their consumption by putting in energy-efficient light bulbs and technologies.

HARRIS: But incentives like appliance rebates or subsidized light bulbs aren't going to get Maryland anywhere close to its 15 percent goal, and here's why. Even if people are willing to spend money up front to do their part for climate change, it's not obvious how to spend that money. Buy a new fridge? Maybe, maybe not. Put in new windows? Very pricey. Add insulation? Well, that's likely to pay off, but how quickly will you recoup that investment?

Malcolm Woolf says Maryland hopes to overcome these problems by training thousands of people to become home energy contractors.

Mr. WOOLF: They can come in, they can tell me how to improve my house, and then they could actually do the work.

HARRIS: Conceptually it makes a lot of sense, but is it really going to pay for me to spend $250 to $500 to have one of these guys come in and tell me that maybe I need another $500 worth of work or more to my house? I have no sense of whether that's every going to pay for itself.

Mr. WOOLF: That's exactly the challenge, is these are investments that do make sense; they will reduce your bill; you will get your money back over a period of months and years.

HARRIS: You just have to take that on faith. There's no knowing what your potential savings are until you've spent the money to find out. And Woolf knows not everyone can afford to take that plunge.

Mr. WOOLF: And a lot of us are struggling to simply pay that month's bill and can't make the investments over the long term.

HARRIS: Maryland still has to figure out how to get people over that big financial hump, and that points to a deeper problem. Michael Dworkin from the Vermont law school says it's not just individuals who have to think differently, so do state governments. What really worked in Vermont, he says, was the state created a system of financial incentives to make the program fly.

Mr. DWORKIN: You have to give somebody a stake in the game. You need to have an institution that benefits by doing it well and it suffers by doing it badly.

HARRIS: Maybe with the right incentives someone will invent new financial instruments that will make it easy for people to have home energy audits, and maybe they'll figure out how to stir most of Maryland's 5 million-plus residents to action, even though only about half of the U.S. population is really concerned about global warming.

But so far the state of Maryland isn't following Dworkin's advice. It's simply asked the local utilities to come up with energy conservation plans. The utilities have no financial stake in the success or failure of those plans, and, by the way, the plans as currently written don't get close to reaching the Maryland goals.

Mr. DWORKIN: It makes sense to have a goal if you're willing to tie impacts to it and results and responsibility for it. Declaring a goal with no responsibility is a waste of time for everybody.

HARRIS: Dworkin says Vermont set realistic goals and it's meeting them, but the goals are much less ambitious than those set forth in Maryland or California, New Jersey, New York and Massachusetts, to name a few. Malcolm Woolf at the Maryland Energy Administration admits the state is trying to bite off a lot with its new law.

Mr. WOOLF: This is an aspirational goal. We want to achieve 15 percent. If we're successful, we think it's the same as avoiding three new power plants. It'll save the state almost $6 billion. Some outside groups had estimated that it will create over 8,000 green collar jobs. If in fact we fall a little short and we've only reduced consumption 12 percent and it only creates 7,000 jobs and avoids two power plants, I think that is a victory for consumers in Maryland.

HARRIS: The potential benefits are not just for consumers, of course. Michael Dworkin says successful conservation programs strike at the heart of climate change. Nationwide, electricity is responsible for 40 percent of carbon emissions.

Mr. DWORKIN: Anything that saves on the electric front has a very direct effect on our carbon emissions. And as we look at the commitments that are being made in more than half the states right now, for people to say we will get our carbon emissions under control within a decade, what that really means is we will get our electric demand under control within a decade.

HARRIS: And success, unfortunately, is not just reaching a 15 or 20 percent reduction. If Maryland reaches its goal, for example, that only reduces carbon emissions by four percent overall when you factor in trucks and cars, heating fuels and population growth.

Conservation may be the cheapest way to address climate change, but that's not to say it's easy.

Richard Harris, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: To see if your state has a similar plan to reduce energy, pay a visit to NPR.org.

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