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Solar powered and earth-bermed homes had all the trappings of the future when I was a kid. Forty-plus years ago, there was talk, studies, journals all extolling the 21st Century as a time of alternative energy sources that were plentiful, clean and cheap.

Funny how we were supposed to have lots of cool stuff happen in the 21st Century. So far, the coolest thing that’s really affected my life differently over the last 41 years, has been the PC and the microwave. Other than those two inventions (not including Velcro) my life hasn’t changed that much. Pretty much, I still drive in a gas-guzzling car (no electric car on my horizon, yet), turn on the lights using electricity and incandescent bulbs (the same type and from the same company my parents used) and this Thanksgiving, I’ll still cook The Bird in a convection oven, overnight at about 250-degrees F – notice, I didn’t even use the Celsius reading that we were supposed to be using across the land by now.

We can only hope that the latest venue of alternative energy-sapping homes being touted by the National Association of Home Builders will actually take root in the North American culture. The Zero Energy Home (ZEH) opened this month in Tucson, Ariz., in the John Wesley Miller Companies' Armory Park del Sol community. This is a community of alternative energy homes, which use an average of less than a dollar a day for heating and cooling through a partnership with Tucson Electric Power and Global Solar Energy. The community makes extensive use of active and passive solar systems.

At NAHB’s Research Center Web site, acting president Terre Belt stated, "The Energy Information Administration is forecasting higher residential heating bills this winter, and consumers are looking to build more energy-efficient homes. As energy prices rise and consumers become more aware of the need to reduce energy use, it seems prudent to build homes that conserve and produce energy, and to make existing homes conserve more energy. The Zero Energy Home is designed to demonstrate how to build an affordable and aesthetically-pleasing home that is also energy efficient." Builder John Wesley Miller, added, "What we're literally doing here is building a small power plant one house at a time. Once we monitor the success of this home, it's likely that we will build more in this community." The ZEH is part of a national initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Energy through its National Renewable Energy Laboratory, according to MillionSolarRoofs.org, a Web site dedicated to the promotion of solar-energy housing.

The site says the primary goal of the initiative is to introduce the ZEH concept into the mainstream home-building industry. Will it take root? We can only hope so. Homeowners of zero energy structures could actually receive a credit from the power company if their state-of-the-art, energy-efficient dwellings return energy back to the utility grid. The unique construction, along with appliances with commercially available Renewable Energy systems, work together to use very little energy, and when possible, return energy to the grid.

DOE administers the ZEH national initiative through its National Renewable Energy Laboratory (www.nrel.gov). The Armory Park del Sol subdivision is one of four zero energy home projects, which are part of the DOE initiative. Researchers at NREL are working with four home-building teams to introduce the zero energy home-concept into the single-family, new home construction industry.

My vote is for alternative fuels, especially as I see the winter months coming approaching the unpredictable Mid-Atlantic region where energy costs of $250-plus per month are not unusual in this household. I just hope mainstream buys in to it before the 22nd Century.

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