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.
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.
"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 …