I like the idea of the United States creating renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency. But would making my own home more energy efficient be worth the money? Should we install solar? Geothermal? Or just a new furnace? Would the $1,500 federal tax credit and New Jersey's rebate make our plan worthwhile?

It took my husband and me a few months to answer those questions, but the effort was well worth it. Our first thought was to install solar panels to generate electricity. But our New Jersey house, circa 1889, is heated by natural gas, and our winter heating bills seemed astronomical, sometimes topping $500 a month. Most of my friends have bigger homes than we do, and their bills were far less than mine. Plus some of the rooms in our house always were uncomfortably cold in winter. We thought about geothermal, but that system didn't seem like it would address the comfort issue. We ended up extensively improving our home's insulation, getting a new furnace and converting to a two-zone heating system. I was thrilled when this past winter we used about half the natural gas we had in previous years and our home was warmer!

I was very happy to get the $1,500 federal tax credit on the work, but I have to thank New Jersey's Clean Energy Program for making the improvements affordable. It took us about seven months to get our state rebate, but the program ended up covering 50% of the nearly $18,000 cost. Receiving the rebate last month completed a great experience with a government program and the contractor who did the work for us.

Our quest to use less energy began in earnest early last year, when we had one or two solar contractors give us estimates. I learned about New Jersey's Clean Energy Program in an article that appeared in spring 2009 in our local newspaper. I called the phone number provided and arranged to have someone do the home performance assessment report required by the program. In June 2009, a state technician came out and did a very thorough evaluation that showed our house was losing a lot of heat. Our estimated savings by making energy improvements would be more than 25%, so we would qualify for a 50% rebate for the work rather than the 10% rebate if we saved less than 25%.

We then got three estimates from companies on the list of state-approved contractors. We were impressed by all of their presentations. We chose the third company we met, DH Services Group in Lake Como, N.J., because its owner, Dave Hoh, provided the most detail, with a breakdown of what each improvement would likely save us. Also, the insulation system he proposed seemed as though it would be the most effective for our house. We also liked his plan for two-zone heating and a new furnace that would replace our old one.

The work was completed in early October. Dave's wife, Christine, was extremely helpful in explaining program details and updating us on our rebate status. In February, the state did a final inspection of the work and passed us. By that time, we were already enjoying a much warmer house (for less money) during what was one of the worst winters in the Northeast in some time.

New Jersey, of course, isn't the only state that has a clean energy program. When you begin your research, it can seem overwhelming to find the information you need, but as you can see from my experience the benefits can be significant. The federal Department of Energy's Database of State Incentives For Renewables & Efficiency might be a good place to start your efforts.