Louisiana has been awarded $4.2 million by the U.S. Energy Department as part of the Energy Star rebate program, otherwise known as the Cash for Appliances program. Modeled after the Cash for Clunkers program that increased sales of fuel-efficient cars, and was heralded by the White House as a success, homeowners can get rebates for new energy efficient appliances –  refrigerators, freezers, washers, dryers, etc. –  as reward for chucking their old energy-draining appliances.

There’s a major difference, though, between the two programs, one that may not bode well for low-income families. Under the car program, an owner turned in a gas guzzler and then was given a voucher that would be applied toward a new fuel-efficient vehicle.

Under the appliance program, a participant buys a new Energy Star certified appliance first, and then provides evidence that he or she disposed of the old appliance in an environmentally safe manner before being granted a rebate by mail.

The consumer must have the money up front to take advantage of this program. The cash-strapped households in New Orleans may not be able to participate in this program, which is aimed at boosting the economy and lowering utility bills.

With post-Katrina remodleing and rebuilding still going strong, the program comes at an opportune time for the New Orleans area.

A quick perusal through the local Lowe’s (the 2009 Energy Star Retail Partner of the Year) appliances advertised online shows Energy Smart washers ranging $400 to $800; dishwashers from $300 to $600; and refrigerators as high as $2,300.

The rebates will range from $75 to $500, and rebates must be filed online. According to Lowe’s, the rebate available for washers are $100, for dishwashers $150, and $250 for refrigerators. Patrick Courreges, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, said the Department of Energy does not let them do upfront financing.

New Orleans households are already cost burdened, as reported in November by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. According to the report, 53.9 percent of households making $20,000 to $35,000 annually are spending over a third of their income on housing costs, including utilities. For households making less than $20,000 a year, over 80 percent are spending over a third of income on housing costs.

The Cash for Appliances program is supposed to help bring housing energy costs down, but if a family can’t buy in to begin with, they’ll be left out and stuck with the higher bills.