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Gas prices have levitated around the $2.50-$3 per gallon range, and natural gas is continuing to rise. With unrest persisting in the Middle East, several business owners are reasoning that higher energy costs are here to stick around. Most have acknowledged that the increases are causing a domino effect on the economic system, and also causing increases in other areas of doing business.

You don't hear a lot of people saying this is a irregular blip anymore. Several companies polled accounted weaker profits and attributed the weakness to climbing energy costs.

Small companies are most likely to raise prices. Raising prices presents one way to ease the pressure of enlarged costs. While that might bring the quickest pay off in the short-run, it bears its own risk, particularly in the competitive retail environment.

Preservation strategies could take longer to pay off, but there's some assistance in handling this task. The Environmental Protection Agency, Energy Department, and Small Business Administration have established a joint program to help small businesses become more energy efficient and to find financing to upgrade their establishments.

Additionally, several state agencies offer free or very low cost energy audits for small businesses. They are under the protection of Energy Star, a joint Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Agency program. The number of participating states is expected to expand in the upcoming year.

Pennsylvania even offers free evaluations of energy audits through their small business development centers. The demand for the audit has risen close to 50 percent in the past year. A few of New England's utility companies offer a no interest financing to small companies for upgrading their lighting and cooling systems.

Additionally, businesses that buy solar and fuel cell systems by the end of this year will qualify for a federal income tax credit. Twenty other states add their own tax breaks for renewable energy. Moreover, some local utilities offer supplemental rebates.

Instructing staff to follow environmentally friendly practices can also help. Enlist the support of everybody in the establishment to shut down machines that's not in use, and look for the best gas prices when filling the tanks of the company vehicles.