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WASHINGTON — Under the new energy bill, you may be able to afford that trendy new hybrid after all. But it may be hard to show off your environmental consciousness when you're driving to work or to school in the dark.

The broad-reaching bill, which President Bush signed into law earlier this month, addresses a variety of U.S. energy concerns, from hybrid electric technology to renewable fuel sources — and extends daylight saving time into the dark winter month of March.

"The energy bill will increase conservation and efficiency, diversify our energy supply with alternative and renewable sources, expand domestic energy production in environmentally sensitive ways, and modernize our electricity infrastructure," said Bush.

The legislation seeks to promote the use of alternative and renewable fuel sources in several different ways.

If you're in the market for a hybrid car between 2006 and 2010, you may receive a tax credit of up to $3,400 when you buy or lease one of seven fuel-efficient models: the Ford Escape, Honda Civic, Honda Accord, Honda Insight, Lexus RXC400h, Toyota Highlander, and yes, the fashionable Toyota Prius.

"This is a big step toward broad market adoption of the hybrid technology," said Jennifer Watts of the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

The exact amount of the credit will be determined by the U.S. Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency and is based on the overall efficiency of the car.

Manufacturers can only apply the tax credit to 60,000 vehicles, however, which will not cover all hybrid sales for most companies. Toyota, for example, sells about 150,000 hybrids each year.

But Watts is excited about the provision nonetheless.

"It's not a perfect bill," she said. "But it's a good start."

The biggest chunk of government change went to the wind industry, with the extension of a tax credit totaling $2.7 billion for companies using wind power — but this provision is unlikely to affect individual homeowners.

There is a new incentive, however, for you or your family to switch to solar power. Homeowners who decide to install or upgrade photovoltaic systems — to power their homes with the light of the sun — will receive a tax credit worth 30 percent of the cost of the system.

But once again, there are catches: the credit is capped at $2,000, and the systems must be installed by the end of 2007.

"This is a good thing, but it's not enough," said Brad Collins, director of the American Solar Energy Association. "An incentive that expires in 2007 is really not going to help build the market."

In order to really build up renewable fuel industries, Collins said, the U.S. should look to Japan and Germany. At the outset of their efficient energy campaigns, the governments of those countries invested large amounts of money and offered huge incentives for consumers switching to solar power — lures that have been scaled back as the industries continue to grow.

Collins said the U.S. needs to adopt such a policy soon.

"How much will it cost before the public demands change?" Collins said. "Soon families will have to choose between filling up the tank and buying new clothes for their children to wear back to school, between having the lights on and having bad air."

Some lawmakers were also less than thrilled with the bill, agreeing that it will not cut back American energy use in any real way. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that while the bill offers enticements to switch to hybrid, solar and wind power, it will not force any change.

"This new law is a historic failure," Markey said. "It fails to do anything to increase the fuel efficiency of our cars and SUVs, even though more than two thirds of the oil we consume goes into gasoline tanks. It fails to mandate the increased use of renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind."

But Craig Stevens, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Energy, said that the bill is not intended as the final solution to the energy crisis.

"We see this as a step in the right direction, a step in the process," he said. "This offers homeowners and home buyers a significant opportunity to afford a mechanism that will improve the energy efficiency and save them money on their energy bills."

The bill's quirkiest feature is perhaps the extension of daylight saving time. In an effort to conserve energy, Markey and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., sponsored a provision that will make the days longer for another four weeks. Daylight savings time will now last from the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, instead of from April to October.

Markey said the provision will save energy because people will turn their lights on later in the day. He also argued that lives would be saved on the roadways, as daylight provides better visibility for drivers.

But the Chicago-based National Parents and Teachers Association points out that people will now be driving to work before daylight, and that children will be traveling to school in the dark.

"We remain concerned about the potential safety issues the extension into March may cause, due to the increased danger of traveling to school in dark hours," the organization said in a statement issued in July. "The safety of our nation's children must be Congress' first and foremost concern."

— Megan Doughty Medill News Service




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