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Progress has made our lives a lot easier, hasn't it? It's also made powering our lives at home a bit more expensive. Heating and cooling your home accounts for the largest part of your electric bill in the U.S. When you consider that in just a 20-year period Americans have dramatically changed the way they cool and heat their homes, you can see why the power grids are having a hard time keeping up with demand.

The U.S. Department of Energy's statistical department, the Energy Information Administration, says bigger homes and more in-home toys are pushing up our energy consumption, even while the cost of energy has actually remained relatively stable over the years.

Even with modern advances in better insulation and energy-efficient furnaces, our homes are bigger -- meaning it's still costing more to heat and cool them. The number of houses with seven rooms or more grew by nearly a third between 1978 and 1997, which of course drove the percentage of dwellings with four rooms or less down to 30 percent, according to EIA.

Meanwhile, we have a lot more electricity-eating toys and the number of homes with these toys grew exponentially: In the Midwest, for instance, houses with central air conditioning swelled to 51 percent in 1997 -- more than double the number of air-cooled homes in 1978. The South grew at about the same rate with more than 70 percent of homes using a central air conditioning unit.

The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Geothermal Technologies is hoping to do its part to drive down heating and air conditioning costs in the next few years by using Mother Earth to cool and heat more homes across the country through geothermal heat pump systems (GHP), also known as GeoExchange systems.

The DOE website explains how the GHP system works, by moving "the heat from the earth (or a groundwater source) into the home in the winter, and pulls the heat from the house and discharges it into the ground in the summer. The underground (or underwater) piping loops serve as a heat source in the winter and a heat sink in the summer."

By using the earth to do what it does naturally -- holding heat in the winter and holding coolness in the summer -- a GeoExchange system is considered one of the most energy-efficient, environmentally clean, and cost-effective space conditioning systems available, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Meanwhile, DOE seeks to increase the installations of geothermal heat pumps (GHP) to 400,000 per year by 2005, hoping to push the cumulative number at that point to 2 million homes using this energy-saving system. The systems are also known as ground-source heat pump systems and can cost up to $7,500 for installation of a 3-ton unit, which is the average sized unit for heating/cooling a home. The cost is about double what you would pay for a traditional heat-pump system.

To help pay for this system, check with the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star loan program or ask a loan officer about an energy-efficient mortgage where the cost of the new heat pump (and other energy conservation costs) can be rolled into the total cost of the home mortgage.

Fannie Mae has funded more than $30 million in energy-efficient mortgages nationwide since the mid-1990s, about 99 percent of which have been issued in the past three years, according to a report in The Las Vegas Sun. Las Vegas has a large contingent of Energy Star homes in the region.

Though it's called a heat pump, the GHP system can also cool homes, and with an interesting side benefit -- free hot water, which is created during the cooling season and can be used in the house.

For more information on GeoThermal heat systems, visit www.Energy.gov or read "An Information Survival Kit for the Prospective Geothermal Heat Pump Owner," published by the Oregon Institute of Technology.

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