Will Bush's Energy Plan Help Consumers?

While much of President Bush's energy plan aims to increase the country's long-term power supply, the proposal also contains some tax credits intended to help consumers in the here and now.

Among the possible incentives for individual consumers: $4 billion in proposed tax credits for the purchase of hybrid gas-and-electric cars, and a tax credit of up to $2,000 for installing solar panels in homes.

The plan also proposes a $300 million increase, to $1.7 billion, for a federal program that helps poor families pay their household energy bills, and recommends $1.2 billion over 10 years for the Weatherization Assistance Program, which helps insulate homes of low-income families.

And the Bush plan also recommends continuing the Environmental Protection Agency's "Energy Star" program, instituted by President Clinton in 1992, which alerts consumers to fuel-efficient products.

Instant Impact?

Through these measures, Bush said while introducing the plan in Minnesota on Thursday, he intends to give Americans the financial means to "expand the diversity of our energy supply."

But environmentalists and energy experts are not necessarily persuaded that the measures they see in the administration's report are the best way to help consumers.

"There are some good elements," says David Hawkins, a program director at the Natural Resources Defense Council in Washington, "but they're consigned such a small role, they don't really leave the consumer better off … in the big picture, the plan does not do enough to lower energy costs, by getting manufacturers to make more energy-efficient automobiles and appliances."

Like all tax measures, these credits and spending measures would have to gain congressional approval — at a time when Congress already has been battling Bush's proposed tax cut. Only then would consumers reap the benefits.

There are limitations imposed by the marketplace, as well. For instance, there are currently only two models of hybrid car available in the United States: the Toyota Prius, a four-door sedan, and the compact Honda Insight.

Detroit's big three automakers — General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler — all have long-range plans to roll out hybrid versions of their most popular models, which would use engines that use a combination of gas and electric power, switching from one to the other while the car is running.

But the automakers say a five-year production cycle means they will not start producing hybrids right away. Ford and DaimlerChrysler are planning hybrid versions of some of their SUVs, to be rolled out from 2003 through 2005, while Chevrolet is planning to produce hybrid versions of two full-size pickups, the Silverado and Sierra, in 2004. Honda has a hybrid version of its popular Civic in the works.

Fun With the Sun

Then there are the solar panel tax credits. The Bush administration's plan recommends that Congress pass a tax credit covering 15 percent of the costs of installing solar panels, up to a maximum of $2,000.

Residential solar heating systems can cost from $5,000 to $25,000 to install, depending on the amount of power required. But that's not the only problem consumers face when trying to go solar.

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