Monday, September 06, 2004

Home Designed to Produce Energy It Uses

Builder Jim Sargent paused on the staircase of the model home, sweat glistening on his forehead as the temperature outside rose into the 90s.

``Feel that breeze?'' Sargent said. The draft's cooling effect didn't happen by accident. Sargent pointed out large casement windows that swing out, catching the prevailing southern winds, and the skylight that can be opened to let warm air escape.

Sargent's house is designed to produce as much energy as it uses. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that the average family spends $1,400 a year to run its house, with about half going for heating and cooling. The agency provides technical help to builders like Sargent to encourage energy-efficient and ``green'' home construction, or ``zero energy'' houses. ...

Despite the push by the Energy Department and a few developers, energy-efficient homes are ``still an experiment'' and not likely to become common anytime soon because consumers don't want to pay for them, said Gopal Ahluwalia, an economist at the National Association of Home Builders.

``Energy is very important, but consumers also want a whole lot of features that are not very energy-efficient,'' he said. ``They want bigger windows, high ceilings, two-story entrances, more fireplaces.''

Ahluwalia said his group's surveys indicate consumers are willing to make a smaller investment -- say, $5,000 to $6,000 -- to shave hundreds off their energy bill. For that reason, he said, more consumers look for appliances with the government's Energy Star seal and houses with energy-saving features.

Sargent said it will take more incentives, such as those offered in California and Arizona, where subsidies and government regulations offset some of the higher green construction costs, such as solar panels. He put $75,000 worth of solar panels on his model home.

``From a feel-good standpoint, I can do it,'' he said, ``but can I justify it from an economic standpoint? Not until the rebates get better.''

Unstated, of course, is the fact that the economics will change drasticly after we reach peak oil.


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