Listen to people talking now and what you hear are discussions about getting fire wood or installing a wood pellet stove or shutting off rooms in a house. There’s no talk about late summer picnics or days at the beach.

Maine people are spending the last days of summer worrying about next winter — specifically worrying about heating their homes while still paying for other necessities and bills.

Maine government can’t lower the price of the oil, but we are doing what we can to reduce the amount of heating oil that many people will have to buy to stay safe and warm this winter. Gov. John Baldacci’s recently announced short-term response is an outstanding example.

We think one of the best ways for homeowners to cut energy costs is to make their home more energy efficient.

Maine, through MaineHousing, is offering eligible residents a Home Energy Loan Program that provides moderate-income homeowners with low interest rate loans for energy improvements. HELP provides loans of up to $30,000 at 3.95 percent interest (4.194 percent annual percentage rate) with a 15-year repayment term. The low interest rate combined with a long repayment term makes for manageable monthly payments — a $10,000 loan costs less than $75 a month.

The program targets middle-income homeowners. While there are income limits, most Maine homeowners are eligible.

Homeowners can use the HELP loan for most types of energy improvements, such as installing energy efficient doors and windows, modifying or replacing central heating systems, adding energy efficient wood or pellet stoves, geothermal heat pumps and solar thermal systems, as long as the savings from the energy improvements over time are more than the cost of the improvements.

We require that borrowers have an energy audit of their homes to identify what improvements will save the most money, but the cost of the audit may be paid for by the loan. If the audit shows the home needs air sealing and insulation, those must be done as part of the improvements because they are critical to cutting energy costs and getting the full benefits of other improvements.

Improved air sealing and insulation alone can reduce energy use by up to 20 percent. With many homeowners facing heating bills of $4,000 to $5,000 a year, that’s an annual savings of $800 to $1,000.

We are offering a similar reduced interest rate energy improvement loan to apartment owners who have financed their apartment building through MaineHousing.

No one claims that heating oil at $4 a gallon is a good thing for Maine. But if we can weather the storm the outcome will be a housing stock that is significantly more energy efficient, that is less reliant on oil and uses more diversified sources for heating, and that makes more use of renewable energy sources.

That would be good for Maine, its citizens and the environment.

Dale McCormick is the director of MaineHousing.