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Bringing home the sun

Solar- and wind-generated power have long fueled a dream of cheap,

You've insulated the attic, installed triple-glazed windows, and bought high-efficiency appliances. Can you make your home any more eco-friendly?

For an increasing number of Americans, the answer is yes. You can let nature help cut your utility bill.

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It may be as simple as replacing outdoor lights with solar-powered fixtures or signing up for your utility's "green power" program. Thanks to rapidly improving technology and government subsidies, thousands of Americans living in remote locations are finding it can be cheaper to use the sun and wind than fossil fuels.

Don't cut your ties to the local utility just yet.

But while renewable energy won't replace coal and natural gas soon (or ever, critics contend), consumers have more choice in their energy mix than ever before. Many are choosing to go "green" - at least a bit.

And they're not all whole-bran environmentalists. Roldan Montalvo runs a gas station here in Hebbronville, Texas. But when he wanted to bring electricity to his cabin eight miles out of town, he went solar.

The reason was simple. The utility wanted $100,000 to extend its electric line to his cabin. Mr. Montalvo paid less than $8,000 for his solar system.

"It's all right so far," he says, looking up at the three solar panels that run a few lights, a fan, and a TV inside. "I can run power tools."

Others, of course, take a more enthusiastic line. "There's a new focus on renewables," says Thomas White, chairman and chief executive of Enron Renewable Energy Corporation, which has completed the world's largest wind farm in Minnesota.

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"My feeling is that we are at the point in time where the personal computer was in the late '70s," adds Mac Moore, director of business development for BP Solar, one of the largest manufacturers and marketers of solar electric systems in the world. "Over the next 10 years, if things go well, there's going to be a revolutionary change in the way that we obtain power."

Wind power represents an even more compelling argument for remote homeowners. Turbines have become so much more efficient over the past decade that homeowners a quarter-mile from a utility line may find it cheaper to put up a wind turbine than to pay the utility to extend its service.

But for most consumers, barriers remain. For one thing, renewable energy systems are expensive to install and require more than a decade before consumers see a payback.

Even a good deal on solar panels in a high-sun area would still cost a typical homeowner 30 to 40 cents a kilowatt-hour for electricity, estimates Bob Johnson, industry analyst with Strategies Unlimited, a technology-research firm in Mountain View, Calif.

That's far above the six to 15 cents that Americans typically pay their local utility, he adds.

Small-scale wind turbines are much more competitive - anywhere from 8 to 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, says Mike Bergey, president of Bergey Windpower in Norman, Okla.

But they still require a $30,000 to $35,000 investment up front and it would take most homeowners 15 to 20 years before they'd see any payback.

There are other drawbacks. Since these systems only produce energy intermittently, there's no guarantee homeowners can store enough energy to run their homes when the sun isn't shining or the wind blowing.

Then there's aesthetics. Will the neighbors accept those solar panels on your roof? Do you want a 100-foot-high wind turbine humming in your backyard like a muffled helicopter?

That's why companies like Bergey Windpower are targeting rural residents in the United States - especially those in states such as California, which will pay up to half the cost of installing renewable-energy systems.

Consumers who want to ease into renewable energy should consider solar lighting. The fixtures, available at many hardware outlets, cost more than traditional lighting. But they're relatively easy to install and they run for free.

Many homeowners can also take advantage of "green power" - utility-company energy that comes from renewable resources rather than from fossil fuels.

More than 40 utilities around the country offer programs where environment-minded customers pay a premium to support the extra cost of renewable energy.

In Texas, for example, Austin Energy customers volunteer to pay an extra $3.50 a month for two years to support new solar projects.

And in states that are deregulating the electricity business - notably California, Pennsylvania, and several New England states - at least 20 "green power" companies offer energy powered substantially from renewables.

So, instead of buying your power from a utility that relies solely on gas- or coal-fired plants, consumers can pick one that also incorporates a large share of wind, solar, or hydroelectric power.

Other "green power" options include biomass (fueled by municipal waste, crop, or forest-product residue) and geothermal power (using the hot water and steam within the earth to produce electricity).

Another option for homeowners: solar hot-water heating. Many companies in that field earned bad reputations during the 1970s and 1980s for leaks and generally poor performance and went bankrupt.

But "the people who survived are selling mature, refined technologies," says Maureen McIntyre, editor of Solar Today, a bimonthly magazine published by the American Solar Energy Society in Boulder, Colo. "Anybody with an electric hot-water heater ought to take a look at solar hot water."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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