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The Alternative-Energy Puzzle

While I was putting together this issue of Smart HomeOwner (my first as the magazine's new managing editor, by the way), someone in our office made an interesting comment about our special home energy section. If all these alternative energy sources we're writing about are so efficient and environmentally friendly, he mused, why aren't they more popular?

Good question. Perhaps what's most surprising about geothermal, biodiesel, wind and solar power is not that they're becoming increasingly viable as alternatives to fossil fuels for home heating and cooling, or that the technologies continue to improve, or that installation and usage costs are steadily coming down -- what's most surprising is that more people aren't using them.

Of course, any new technology takes time to filter out to the general public, but as we point out in this issue, most of these technologies are not new. For thousands of years humans have been harnessing the power of the wind and the sun. But still, even now, those and other clean energy sources are just on the fringe of being accepted by most homeowners, and they have a long way to go before they begin to take even a small chunk out of the fossil-fuel industry's lion's share of the market.

So, again, why? Why don't we see alternative energy sources used in more homes? Well, as always, cost is a factor. A 5- to 10-kilowatt wind-power system, for example, can run tens of thousands of dollars to install. Geothermal and solar power also can require sizable upfront investments (although passive solar is essentially free). Even biodiesel, a blend of a vegetable derivative and regular diesel fuel that can be used to power cars and heat homes, costs on average 20 to 30 cents more than regular oil or gas.

More than likely, it's those upfront costs, along with the fact that these energy alternatives still seem so new and exotic, that keep homeowners from taking the alternative-energy plunge.

So what's to be done? Education, of course, is a valuable tool, and we've strived to do our part with this issue, as well as our continuing coverage of home energy. Market forces such as the rising cost of oil are powerful factors driving many homeowners to take another look at energy alternatives.

There are signs that change is coming. Venture capitalists are starting to invest heavily in alternative-energy companies, particularly those involved in solar energy research. Federal, state and local governments are doing their part to encourage alternative-energy installations by offering homeowners incentives and tax credits. And on Capitol Hill, bills like the Energy Independence Act (H.R. 4652), introduced by Rep. Jim Nussle (R-Iowa), are making their way through Congress. Nussle™s bill includes incentives designed to spur the use of biodiesel, which can be made from American-grown soybeans. The goal, of course, is to reduce our dependence on imported oil, particularly in these troubled times.

The true driving force behind the adoption of alternative energy, however, is you, the homeowner. We hope this issue gives you some ideas about the possibilities offered by alternative energy sources, and we promise to keep you informed of future developments, so you can continue to make smart choices.