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Going 'hybrid' with houses

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Last year, hybrid cars reached a turning point. Steep gas prices drove folks to the more fuel efficient part-gas, part-electric vehicles, and this year many of the automakers will offer them in their lineups. With rising energy bills shocking residents across the US, it's time to "go hybrid" with homes.

According to Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, Midwesterners can expect to see natural gas prices rise by an average $350 this season. In the Northeast, which heats mostly with oil, expect a $270 hike.

States are scrambling to help low- and even middle-income Americans pay these bills, and Washington just released an additional $100 million in aid. In the longterm though, it's not subsidies that help, but incentives - government and market - to build more energy efficient homes, and retrofit existing ones.

This year and next, homeowners can receive federal tax credits for home energy improvements - the first since 1985 - covering, for instance, insulation, windows, and more efficient heating and cooling systems. Hybrid-vehicle buyers also get a credit. (See www.energytaxincentives.org for a list of credits.)

Credits can be a more effective motivator than tax deductions, because they're subtracted directly from the bottom line of a person's tax bill. Combined with state and local incentives, they can lead to affordable upgrades that will significantly reduce home energy costs.

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