COLUMBIA -- A new law in South Carolina that will allow electric customers to take out loans to make energy-efficiency upgrades and reduce the need for more power plants is expected to be replicated nationally.

Gov. Mark Sanford signed the proposal into law Wednesday and efforts are under way in Congress to use it as a model for a national program.

As early as June, an estimated 225,000 customers of the Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina could take out low-interest loans to buy new roofs, heating and air units, insulation or other items to make their homes more energy-efficient. The upgrades will generate savings each month on the electric bills, which would be used to pay back the loans.

Before that could happen, however, the cooperatives are looking for Congress to put up the cash to make the loans. A bipartisan group of U.S. House members and senators -- including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, 5th District Rep. John Spratt, both Democrats, and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- are backing the plan and working toward its approval in Congress.

Clyburn said he hopes Congress will act soon on the legislation pending in the U.S. House and Senate.

"Through this program we are creating real energy savings and jobs, providing value to consumers and the government will receive a return on its investment," Clyburn said in a statement. "There is no downside to this initiative."

The loans would range from $1,500 to $7,000 and would be paid back in five to 10 years with savings on residents' electric bills. The loans would be made to cooperative customers at a 2.5 percent interest rate.

Sanford said he supports the legislation because it provides a free-market opportunity for individuals to cut energy costs.

"The beneficiaries are real. The savings are real. The consequences are real," he said.

The idea is also supported by the environmental community. Hamilton Davis, energy and climate director for the Coastal Conservation League, said the legislation is "visionary."

The law would allow other power companies to offer the low-interest loans to their customers, if they decide to do so.

Appliance rebates

Shoppers in South Carolina are quickly snapping up rebates for energy-efficient appliances.

More than half of the $3.9 million set aside for rebates on Energy Star-certified appliances was claimed by Wednesday evening, the first day the incentives were offered as part of the federal stimulus and recovery law.

At that time, the South Carolina Energy Office said on its Web site about $1.7 million remained for the rebates of $50 to $100 on clothes washers, refrigerators and dishwashers.

About $282,000 of the rebates up to $500 for water heaters and central air conditioning units remained.

The rebates will be applied at store checkouts for smaller appliances. Companies installing whole-house equipment, such as water heaters and heating systems, will reserve rebates online and give customers mail-in forms.

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