Going 'hybrid' with houses

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Last year, hybrid cars reached a turning point. Steep gas prices drove folks to the more fuel efficient part-gas, part-electric vehicles, and this year many of the automakers will offer them in their lineups. With rising energy bills shocking residents across the US, it's time to "go hybrid" with homes.

According to Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, Midwesterners can expect to see natural gas prices rise by an average $350 this season. In the Northeast, which heats mostly with oil, expect a $270 hike.

States are scrambling to help low- and even middle-income Americans pay these bills, and Washington just released an additional $100 million in aid. In the longterm though, it's not subsidies that help, but incentives - government and market - to build more energy efficient homes, and retrofit existing ones.

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This year and next, homeowners can receive federal tax credits for home energy improvements - the first since 1985 - covering, for instance, insulation, windows, and more efficient heating and cooling systems. Hybrid-vehicle buyers also get a credit. (See www.energytaxincentives.org for a list of credits.)

Credits can be a more effective motivator than tax deductions, because they're subtracted directly from the bottom line of a person's tax bill. Combined with state and local incentives, they can lead to affordable upgrades that will significantly reduce home energy costs.

Actually, the US is making progress in home energy efficiency. While total residential energy use is increasing along with the US population, use per household dropped by nearly 20 percent from 1980 to 2001. All things being equal, it could have been down even further, but for the proliferation of McMansions and electronic gadgets (some plasma TVs use more energy than a refrigerator).

The "energy star" program promoted by the US Environmental Protection Agency is one reason for the progress, as manufacturers and consumers seek the energy-star efficiency seal. Now, builders are constructing entire homes that earn the label. About 10 percent of new homes qualify, which means they're 30 percent more efficient than federal codes.

But to go to the next generation in homebuilding means transitioning to "zero-energy homes." Like a hybrid, the ZEH, as it's called, "drives" and looks like a normal house. Flat, unobtrusive solar tiles cover the roof and augment power. Tankless heat-as-you-use water heaters and super efficient windows reduce demand. The result is a wash - "zero" net energy consumption once the house is built.

The problem is these cost-saving components can add upwards of $25,000 to the initial house price. They pay for themselves over several years, but by then, the owner may have moved.

With help from the DOE and states, hundreds of ZEHs have been built in California and the Southwest, and thousands are planned for the next couple years. People are indeed buying them, just as they did hybrids, and it's a only matter of time before demand - and economies of scale - make them more affordable.

Until then, federal and state governments must offer homeowners and builders energy incentives - and not just for two years.

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