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High on the hog

The Energy Information Administration predicts that heating oil prices will rise 34 percent this winter and that electricity bills will go up 11 percent

He wasn't wearing a sweater, and he didn't mention anything about solar panels for the White House, but Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman last week still sounded a bit like Jimmy Carter, circa 1979.

As gasoline prices began rising again and winter approached, Mr. Bodman and the Alliance to Save Energy, a consumer group, launched a campaign to convince Americans to conserve energy. The goal is to reduce demand, in response to pretty severe supply disruptions from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. "The need to use energy more wisely," said Mr. Bodman, "is particularly acute this year because of the higher prices that we expect to see."

How much higher? The Energy Information Administration predicts that heating oil prices will rise 34 percent this winter and that electricity bills will go up 11 percent. AAA, meanwhile, reports that the average price nationwide for a gallon of gasoline had gone back up to $2.94 by Oct. 6, after falling between the two destructive hurricanes.

Mr. Bodman believes that it may take until spring to get energy production back up to its pre-Katrina level. "We're going to go through a very challenging time the next six months, is my guess," he told USA Today. "Both in terms of gasoline availability and natural gas and heating oil, we're going to have some problems."

The government hopes that a problem pig will help ease some of the burden. "Energy Hog," a cartoon pig clad in blue jeans and a leather jacket, is the face of the Easy Ways to Save Energy campaign. A creation of the Alliance to Save Energy, he'll appear in newspaper and magazine ads, as well as billboards, as a villain that needlessly costs Americans money. The campaign will also include public-service spots on 4,500 radio stations.

In what amounts to a call for sound stewardship, the hope is that Energy Hog will encourage Americans to install more insulation in their homes, drive fewer miles, and lower their thermostats. On the supply side, Mr. Bodman said President Bush may tap government stocks of heating oil in order to relieve supply shortages in the winter.

But reports from automakers suggest that Americans may not be waiting for the government to remind them to be energy efficient; higher prices at the pump have already sent that message.

According to an analysis by the Bloomberg News Service, sales of small, fuel-efficient cars rose 11 percent for the three U.S. automakers and the three biggest Japanese automakers in August. Meanwhile, sales of the largest SUVs fell by 17 percent.

That was even before Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, and early data for September suggest that the trend is accelerating. The Ford Motor Co. reports that sales of Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury cars rose 6 percent last month while sales of trucks and SUVs dropped almost 28 percent. At Nissan, car sales rose 26.5 percent and sales of the mid-size Pathfinder SUV more than doubled, while sales for the company's largest SUV, the Armada, fell 21 percent.

The implication: Exhortations from cartoon pigs may be good, but nothing revolutionizes spending patterns like a strong, clear, price hike.

Five ways to save money on energy

  • Use a programmable thermostat. These allow consumers to turn down the heat when they're away and have the heat kick on shortly before they get home.
  • Use compact fluorescent light bulbs.
  • Air dry dishes. A dishwasher's drying cycle uses energy.
  • Obey speed limits. Driving faster uses more gasoline.
  • Use power strips for electronic equipment, and turn off the power strip when not using the equipment. Even TV sets and DVD players that are turned off use energy when they are plugged in.

(Source: U.S. Department of Energy)