Sheridan – It’s the beginning of May and my furnace is running like hell. The problem isn’t my furnace, which is only a few years old, it’s my house.

It was built in 1924, a time when economic depression cast a pall over Sheridan. Builders didn’t exactly subscribe to excess in constructing a weatherproof home.

Besides, in 1924, fuel was cheap. Coal, produced in the local Dietz mine, could be had at $3.75 per ton, delivered.

But fuel is no longer such a bargain. Each year I try to tighten up this house a little. Better furnace. More fuel-efficient water heater. My plan this year includes new windows, a few anyway. When discussing this plan with a friend of mine in Oregon, he suggested I go to my local utility and get an interest-free loan to weatherize my house. Every state’s got something like that, he declared expansively.

Well, almost every state. Wyoming may produce a pile of BTUs, but we’re pretty slow when it comes to conserving them. Neither the state of Wyoming nor energy companies offers much when it comes to fundamental economic incentives to make our homes more energy efficient.

“Fundamental” does not mean sponsoring more conservation awareness programs, or buying more energy efficient appliances, or paying the power bills of the needy. Those efforts are all noble in intent, but they address symptoms, not the cure. Drafty, poorly insulated homes still leak heat even if the furnace is an energy-efficient gem or someone besides the user pays for the gas. Wyoming needs homes, old and new, that require less energy.

The median age of a Wyoming home is 31 years. This means many were built in the mid-1970s, a nascent age in conservation when us Y-chromosome types got exercised about chainsaws and wood heating. We realized, for the first time, just how expensive home heating could be.

Wyoming actually has a lot players dedicated to the idea of conservation and a good foundation for serious action. Yet we’re still reacting, playing nickel- and- dime catch-up with other states as energy costs go ever higher. We treat aggressive, proactive energy conservation as if it were some sort of Trotskyite plot. It wouldn’t hurt to step on the gas, to employ a phrase that carries both literal and metaphoric possibilities.

Here’s what Wyoming has so far for direct state or private financial involvement for weatherization:

A program for low-income housing weatherization run by the Department of Family Services. In 2006-2007, Wyoming budgeted $2.9 million to weatherize 325 homes.

The Wyoming Community Development Authority loans up to $7500 for homeowner weatherization projects. But it also has income restrictions, an understandable (high heating bills hit the poor hardest) but ultimately daffy limitation.

Both of these programs are guided by the mindset that only low-to-medium income homeowners will really feel the pinch of high energy costs. High energy bills do encourage conservation, but many middle class residents find themselves strapped to come up with the $5,000 – $10,000 required to put thermopane windows in their homes. Rental units don’t count, either.

The average Wyoming winter home heating bill is now about $200/month. Energy analysts expect that to double in the next five or six years, unless there’s some miraculous technological energy breakthrough or the economies of China and India collapse and reduce the need for energy.

Will the average Wyoming homeowner’s income double during the same time period? Possible but unlikely, as the sage once said.

The Wyoming Energy Council provides the brightest spot in energy conservation. It currently manages to get along on a measly $100,000 state appropriation, provided by Petroleum Violation Escrow funds, to educate the public, perform energy audits, and set up training programs for contractors. It plans to give low-interest weatherization assistance loans by the fall.

What about funds from energy companies? Wyoming has 260 energy providers of all shapes and sorts. But for practical reasons, don’t expect them to get unduly concerned about conservation.

Wyoming’s low housing density makes utility company cost analysts shudder. At last count (2006) we had 240,000 homes scattered out over nearly 100,000 square miles. Compare this to say, Seattle, which has over 270,000 homes crammed into 84 square miles. This means any energy company – no matter how green their clothing – would be financially addled if they did not to sell as much juice as possible to each Wyoming residential customer to recoup their investment.

Energy companies want, naturally, steady uses of power at high rates. They do worry about delivering electricity at peak demand, the year’s single highest demand for electricity for a one-hour period. It’s usually air-conditioner driven and occurs on torrid summer days. The peak power day for Wyoming in 2006 was July 24th. The inability to deliver the goods means blackouts or brownouts, which make energy companies look really bad.

Thus, for energy companies, conservation means demand-side control. It works like this: in exchange for a cheaper rate, the homeowner cedes control of when they may use their air conditioner, clothes dryer, or any appliance requiring serious kilowatts during peak demand. Utilities may also give you a one-time rebate on a heat pump or a more efficient water heater.

“We’re not seeing many applications [from utilities] for other types of energy conservation programs,” said Bryce Fuller of the Wyoming Public Service Commission. It must be noted, however, that Rocky Mountain Power plans to come before the Public Service Commission with an application for program that includes direct financing for weatherization.

Good on them for stepping up to the plate. It’s the general reluctance to do so that slays me about corporate America, energy (and airline) companies in particular. They will wait until prices bounce off the firmament and the public is ready to string up them up like Cattle Kate dangling from a tree beside the Sweetwater River, before taking serious action. By not being more aggressive in conservation, energy companies invite federal and state oversight.

And the state of Wyoming has its tax priorities mixed up. Right now, due to the rising cost of property taxes, there is some vague sense that the state needs to help out homeowners, tax-wise. This is a form of Cheyenne humor, of course, as Wyoming ranks 41st in the nation for residential property tax burden. Still, during the last session, the legislature unsuccessfully tried to offer such a tax-relief proposition.

Instead, Wyoming could encourage meaningful conservation in two ways:

Offer, like the state of Oregon, an Energy Trust run by the Public Utility Commission. It pays cash incentives for homeowners to install more efficient hot water heaters, insulation, better windows, and sealing the frame of your house.

Try giving energy providers tax incentives to do something serious about home weatherization for their customers. If low population density Wyoming wants energy companies to partner with them in serious conservation, then we better give them incentive to do so. Currently we give them none.

Weatherization loans or rebates make more sense than property tax relief. Let income restrictions or means testing be the servant, not the master, when it comes to funding for weatherization. The populist streak in Wyoming continues to worry too much about who gets what. It’s in our collective interest to have big homes burn less energy.

Conservation simultaneously helps homeowners keep what they earn and improve the value of their property. My guess is that in the near future, household energy bills will, on a smaller scale, engender the same financial dread now provided by college tuition bills.

Tiger Adolph of the Wyoming Energy Council put it this way: “Typical payback period on energy efficient installations is two to five years. That is an excellent return on investment in today’s financial market. Consumers can invest in their property and personal comfort for a better rate than most investments are returning.”

Tell me, once again, why the state would not want to foster such an activity?

Samuel Western

Samuel Western of Sheridan is a university lecturer, poet and U.S. regional correspondent for The Economist. He is the author of Pushed Off the Mountain Sold Down the River: Wyoming’s Search for Its...