Despite the recent unusually cold temperatures, Chris Branch was shocked by his January utility bill: $208 — three or four times higher than usual.

"I thought it was a typo," said Branch, 28. "I'm not used to it being that high at all."

According to his Entergy New Orleans breakdown, Branch's one-bedroom Riverbend apartment used more than three times as much electricity in January as it did in December, when his bill was $62. His two bills before that: both $41.

During the summer, his bills ran between $40 and $50, he said.

"It changes my planning for sure," Branch said of the latest bill. "I'll be able to pay it, but it's no fun. When you're used to paying $40 ... that's three, four or five grocery trips that are going to the Entergy bill instead."

Anne Rooks can also relate to the sticker shock.

Rooks, 48, has lived in the same three-bedroom, century-old Creole cottage in Mandeville for more than a decade, so she's gotten high electricity bills before. But not like her last two Cleco bills: one for $320, the other for $569, she said. That's more than double what she would expect in the summer.

"The insulation is marginal at best, but given that all my electricity bills are pretty consistent, I usually know what to expect," she said. "These last two kind of took me by surprise."

After two months with prolonged cold spells, when temperatures were below 50 degrees for two-thirds of December and January, and well below freezing many nights, many residents across south Louisiana did a double-take at their recent utility bills, which in some cases were to two or three times the normal winter rate.

Heating and cooling a home can easily account for half of a home's energy use, and federal estimates suggest that as much as $400 of the $2,000 that the typical American spends for energy annually may be lost due to problems like drafts around doors, air leaks near floors, walls and windows, and aging and inefficient heating and cooling systems.

Utility companies, regulators and affordable energy advocates all agree that consumers can save money and make their home more comfortable by making energy-efficiency upgrades, but questions persist as to whether the state's utilities are doing enough to implement them.

Some incentives offered

For years, local and state utility regulators have urged residents to implement energy-efficiency upgrades and have offered incentives to help pay for the work.

The New Orleans City Council started its Energy Smart program in 2011, while the Louisiana Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities in the rest of the state, followed with a statewide program in 2013.

Logan Burke, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, a statewide consumer group that lobbies for environmentally responsible energy, gives higher marks to Energy Smart, now in its eighth year.

Entergy New Orleans has budgeted nearly $12.4 million this year for Energy Smart, a figure that's slated to rise to about $14.4 million next year.

By comparison, the utilities involved in the state's energy-efficiency initiative, including Entergy Louisiana, Cleco and Shreveport-based Southwestern Electric Power Co., together spent less than that amount in each of that program's initial two years.

In each case, critics and supporters agree that the programs mark steps in the right direction, dangling millions of dollars to incentivize customers to make upgrades that will reduce their long-term utility costs. But some say the marketing of the programs should be improved so more people will take advantage of them.

At the state level, some observers, including Burke, say the program is too small-scale, with regulators restricting the utilities from spending more than 0.1 percent of their 2012 revenues on the energy-efficiency program. After three years, funding for the program ran out in October, and state regulators haven't yet reauthorized it.

That's left many customers, including at Entergy Louisiana, which provides power to about half the state, with few options if they're looking to make improvements now.

"It's complicated," said Jeff Haag, whose New Orleans-based firm Diversified Energy specializes in using spray foam to fill and insulate walls, floors and attic gaps, thus reducing the flow of heat into or out of a home. "It's not that easy just to call up or go to the website and say, 'Here's what it's going to cost.' "

In fact, logging onto Entergy Louisiana's website spells out the problem. "Incentive funds for 2018 are being finalized," it says in red lettering. "Please check this page periodically for updated program information."

Wasting money

Beyond question is that cold weather drives up usage, as electric heaters work overtime to maintain comfortable temperatures. During the first week in January, the region's transmission grid saw its peak electricity usage average nearly 25 percent higher than in the same period last year.

To energy experts, that's no surprise in a historic city like New Orleans, where three-quarters of the city's housing stock was built prior to 1980, much of it on raised floors that lack insulation.

"Residents in Louisiana are just wasting tremendous amounts of their money and of electricity that's going through the floorboards," Burke said.

"We have beautiful homes that are leaky," she added, "and that means that people are uncomfortable in their homes and then are very uncomfortable with their electricity bills at the end of the month."

Still, Entergy Louisiana touts successes with its program, noting that the utility spent more than $20 million on its energy-efficiency initiatives, the maximum amount authorized by the PSC for the three years. In turn, Entergy Louisiana's customers saved about 110 million kilowatt hours over that span, utility spokesman Michael Burns said, adding that the company is "committed to spend the maximum amount again in 2018."

Even some of its backers agree that the statewide program has shortcomings and could be better marketed.

"It was a good thing all the way around. Now, it's not perfect, but it's something that is a work in progress, and I think it will get better and better," said Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell.

But Campbell was quick to point out what he believes is the program's chief problem: "Not enough people know about it."

On the other hand, Commissioner Eric Skrmetta said his office had not received more calls than usual lately from utility customers complaining about high bills, and he stressed that Louisiana's residential electricity rates are typically the lowest in the country. His district includes parts of Jefferson, Orleans and St. Charles parishes, as well as St. Bernard and St. Tammany.

"It's not about a high cost of electricity at this point; it's about the choice of the consumer," he said.

Cost borne by customers

In addition to Entergy Louisiana, the other utilities involved in the state's energy-efficiency program included Cleco, which serves the north shore, as well as SWEPCO, which serves northwestern and central Louisiana. Together, the three companies spent about $22.3 million in the program's first two years.

The cost is paid by ratepayers, initially estimated at about 40 cents per month for the average utility customer.

The utilities are still auditing the results from the third year, which ended in October.

Among the offerings during its initial energy-efficiency program, Entergy Louisiana offered residential customers incentives for upgrades such as installing ceiling insulation; a rebate covered roughly 33 percent of the cost of a job that typically runs between $1,200 and $1,500.

Rebates were also offered for duct sealing, which can ensure that the system is insulated properly and does not have gaps or holes where heated air can leak out into an attic or crawlspace; 27 percent of the total cost was covered for a project that typically ran from $1,250 to $1,400.

Pineville-based Cleco offered a handful of energy-efficiency programs, including one that offered rebates of up to $1,500 for residential customers who made home energy improvements like duct sealing, floor insulation or replacing an old air conditioner or heat pump.

Cleco spent about $3 million in the second year, generating an energy savings of almost 17.9 million kilowatt hours, according to a regulatory filing.

Meanwhile, New Orleans' energy-efficiency program is entering its eighth year. In a recent audit that examined its fifth year, the program was projected to have saved roughly 21.2 million kilowatt hours that year.

A popular aspect of the program offers rebates for contractors to conduct a walk-through to identify a homeowner's potential energy-efficiency upgrade opportunities — steps like duct sealing, air sealing, ceiling insulation, floor insulation and insulating walls, with the most popular move being duct sealing.

Overall, nearly 1,200 households took advantage of that part of the program during 2015-16, according to the audit filed with the City Council, which regulates Entergy New Orleans. The program provides financial incentives for residential customers in a single-family home up to a four-plex.

After the assessment, customers can receive different incentives for making the recommended improvements. For attic insulation, that's up to 40 cents per square foot; for air infiltration sealing, up to 13 cents per cubic foot per minute of air infiltration that's reduced; and for duct sealing, up to $200.

Improvements made through the so-called Home Performance with Energy Star program generated an energy savings of nearly 3.8 million kilowatts. The bulk of it — 85 percent — resulted from duct sealing, according to Entergy's review, likely because the work could be done at no cost to the participants after the incentives were tallied.

The program's participants were typically small homeowners, with a significant portion reporting an annual household income of less than $25,000, the audit found.

The city also offers a separate program to help low-income residents — who do not exceed 200 percent of federal poverty guidelines — weatherize their homes. Through that program, residents can receive energy-saving equipment and free improvements such as attic insulation, air sealing, duct sealing and an A/C tune-up.

A busy January

Meanwhile, some businesses that handle energy work say they've seen an uptick in calls lately as the high bills went out.

"We definitely had a busier January than we had in recent years, and I would say that it is a direct result of the higher than average bills," said Jeffrey Cantin, president and owner of Solar Alternatives, a New Orleans-based solar and energy efficiency firm.

Likewise, Robert Wilson, whose Covington-based firm Wilserv specializes in energy efficiency work like spray-foam insulation, has kept busy lately.

"You see real cold weather, you get a lot of calls for floor insulation," said Wilson, whose firm has about 40 employees.

Wilson's customers include low-income and working-class people trying to stretch their budgets, and he typically runs through a list of options that can help lower their bills, such as installing window screens to reduce solar heat and using chalk and spray-foam to seal gaps around areas exposed to the outside.

But observers expect the recent cold weather will get more people thinking about taking even modest steps toward energy efficiency.

Andreas Hoffmann is executive director and founder of Green Light New Orleans, a nonprofit that helps residents reduce their energy bills by providing free, compact fluorescent light bulbs. In January, the group had 40 requests for installations, compared to 15 in December and 25 in November.

Hoffmann's group has installed more than 600,000 light bulbs since 2007, an effort that gained funding and long-term sustainability after it partnered with Energy Smart. He estimates that the bulbs will produce nearly $27 million in energy savings over the life of the equipment.

"My belief is that you will always have cold snaps, so there's no way around that," he said. But the savings generated by using energy-efficient equipment — like the bulbs — "that's what then helps you get through a cold snap."

The fluorescent light bulbs are just one measure, but backers like Hoffmann say they may be among the easiest entryways that a person can take before pursuing broader, costlier steps to reduce energy usage.

"If somebody starts to understand what you can do with the light bulbs and sees the bill going down, then they become a believer," he said.

Follow Richard Thompson on Twitter, @rthompsonMSY.