Do you get the feeling that the world is getting more serious about alternative energy sources?
The Irish government, for example, embarked on a program a couple of weeks ago to increase the country's dependence on wind and solar to 13.5 percent from 5 percent -- even though Ireland's environmentalists don't think 13.5 percent over 10 years is enough.
Brazil has taken the lead among developing and developed countries in using hybrid cars and alternative means of propelling them to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels.
Even I'm seriously considering solar power for my workshop and solar hot water for the house. My home state, New Jersey, provides a 70 percent rebate of the cost of such "clean-energy" projects, and the Energy Act of 2005 will provide a tax credit for some of the rest of the cost.
Not all solar is the same, at least not yet. At the National Hardware Show a couple of weeks ago, I visited a booth in which the manufacturer had on display a growing line of solar powered outdoor lights.
When I suggested that solar lighting tended to be a lot dimmer than conventional outdoor lighting, the booth tour guide agreed, saying that low-voltage electrical systems (those that step down power to 12 volts from 110 volts) reduce power consumption while providing plenty of light for sidewalks and driveways at night.
Yet, solar lighting, too, is improving, with more powerful LEDs and technology -- even though they still are considered more decorative than useful, my guide said.
By reducing fossil-fuel consumption, we can reduce the amount of gases being emitted into the atmosphere, especially by power plants and cars. Many scientists have linked these so-called greenhouse gases to global warming -- although there is still considerable debate about the issue.
Environmental Defense, a nonprofit organization that believes the threat of global warming is real, has come up with a number of ways the average homeowner can reduce his or her contribution to greenhouse gases.
The group calls it "The Low Carbon Diet," contending, among other things, "that if everyone in Memphis, Tenn., replaced just two regular 60-watt bulbs with compact fluorescents, the savings would power Hartford, Conn., for three weeks."
Those lights do cost more but last 13 times longer than the older models.
You can increase energy efficiency by 30 percent by just plugging up air leaking out of your house. You should increase insulation in attics, ductwork and under flooring on the ground floor if you have an unheated basement.
If your hot water heater is older than five years, wrap it in an insulating jacket, and keep the temperature at 120 degrees. Microwave ovens reduce energy use by two-thirds compared with conventional ones, and crockpots and pressure cookers also are more efficient.
Our ancestors had a better idea of how to use the natural environment to keep houses cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, since they didn't have air conditioning and cutting wood for the fireplace could become a full-time occupation in frigid weather.
Since we have at least five months to correct landscaping problems, here's what the group recommends.
In temperate climates, don't plant deciduous (leaf-shedding) trees south of the house, since even bare branches can block sun in the winter. Plant shrubs, bushes and vines about a foot from the wall of the house to create a "dead-air" insulating space.
In the desert Southwest (including Southern California), plant shade trees to cool your roof, walls and windows. Shading your air conditioning unit also can increase its efficiency by 10 percent. Keep vegetation away from the house; it can trap heat and make the house feel hotter.
In the northern Plains and Upper Midwest, as well as Northern New England and Alaska, you should plant dense evergreen trees and shrubs north and northwest of your house to protect it from winds. You can combine evergreens with a wall, fence or berm to lift winds over the house.
Don't block the winter sun from south-facing windows. If you get a lot of snowdrifts, plant low shrubs on the side of your house where winds originate. In hot and humid climates, plant deciduous trees on the northeast-to-southeast and northwest-to-southwest sides of the house. Plant low ground cover, including grasses, around your driveway or patio to cool these areas and to prevent glare.
It seems little to do for considerable payback.