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Appliance Rebates Off to a Slow Start

Rebates to buy energy-efficient appliances, announced by the U.S. government in July, are so far available only in Delaware and won't be offered in many states until spring.

The $300 million "cash for appliances" program, funded by the federal economic stimulus, is being rolled out gradually, state-by-state. In contrast, the popular "cash for clunkers" car trade-in program was national, so all buyers were eligible the same day.

"This really is a state-level program," says Jen Stutzman of the Department of Energy, which is allocating the money based on population. Since the program is new, she says, it took time for each state to set up its own rules for handing out the rebates. The department has a website (www.energysavers.gov) linking to each state's program.

The money is on top of any state incentives and federal tax credits that are also available for energy-efficient home upgrades.

The new incentives are for appliances that carry the government's Energy Star label, which shows they are more efficient than other products.

The rebates can be hundreds - even thousands - of dollars, but in some states, they are available only to low-income people. Oregon, which is targeting 1,800 low-income households that need new furnaces or heat pumps, will begin issuing vouchers worth up to $2,000 in January.

Delaware, which began issuing its federal mail-in rebates for $25 to $200 on Dec. 1, allows anyone to participate and does not require that old appliances be turned in.

Some states require recycling.

"There's a good chance these appliances will end up in landfills or incinerators" unless state or federal laws require their recycling, says Scott Cassel, founder of the Product Stewardship Institute, which advocates recycling.

"We have a concern about refrigerators," says Kateri Callahan of the non-profit Alliance to Save Energy. She says they're often not disposed of but rather become second fridges that increase a home's energy use.

For retailers, it's easier to market a national program than it is for one with rules that vary by state, says Larry Costello, spokesman for Sears, a major retailer of Energy Star appliances. To reduce confusion, Sears has set up an online guide to the rebate program. For $10, it hauls away and recycles appliances.

Callahan says she expects the appliance rebate program to improve energy efficiency and she doesn't fault the gradual rollout.

"It's a lot of money," she says. "I'd like to see it used wisely."

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