AUGUSTA (AP) – State officials detailed a $7 million Home Energy Loan Program on Wednesday, saying it can provide loans of up to $15,000 at an interest rate as low as 1 percent to homeowners with incomes of up to 115 percent of the area median income.

“We think this is an important and beneficial program for Maine’s homeowners, and for the state of Maine,” Maine Housing Director Dale McCormick said in a statement issued in conjunction with a news conference at which she appeared with the governor. “Governor Baldacci has encouraged us to make Maine more energy independent, and save some homeowners money. HELP is a step toward that goal.”

As described by officials of the Maine State Housing Authority and the Baldacci administration, the program provides loans to be used to invest in energy improvements.

Loans with an interest rate of 1 percent are available to homeowners who make improvements suggested by a certified energy auditor. Those not using an energy auditor may still obtain loans at 3 percent.

Officials said the cost of an energy audit may be included in the loan.

HELP loans, according to McCormick, could be used to pay for energy conservation measures such as insulation and weather-stripping, heating system repair or replacement, installation of storm doors and storm windows and purchase of Energy Star rated appliances and windows, among others.

Officials said results would vary, but owners who make energy conservation improvements identified in an energy audit may realize reductions in energy consumption ranging from 15 percent to 20 percent a year.

On Tuesday, Maine’s U.S. senators said the Bush administration had agreed to immediately release $79.9 million from the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program emergency fund, of which $7.1 million is earmarked for Maine.

Some 4.5 million low-income families, including about 46,450 in Maine, rely on LIHEAP to help meet their heating needs.

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