These days, it's a lot easier being green.
Solar power is cheaper than ever for homes, American families are using geothermal heating and cooling systems, and efficient wind turbines make it a breeze to generate electricity without using polluting fossil fuels.
Oil prices have slid since last year, but are still high. For example, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that nationwide, average natural gas heating costs increased 7 percent from last winter to this winter. The DOE also estimates that nationwide, average heating costs increased 7 percent, which takes into account Arizona, Florida and other states with year-round temperate climates. Meanwhile, state and federal incentives can help home owners install renewable energy sources or implement energy-efficient strategies in their houses.
But some high-end home owners are shifting to innovative energy practices — and not for financial or environmental reasons.
“Some of our high-end clients literally never see their energy bills,” says Steven J. Strong, founder and president of Solar Design Associates in Harvard, Mass. “They are basically putting a higher value on having more control over their energy destiny. This is a hedge against uncertainty.”
Hollywood, high-tech and high-powered types are getting more energy independent, he says. The 2001 California blackouts, the Northeast blackout of 2003 and the hurricanes that left some Florida residents without power for weeks last summer have encouraged more non-tree-huggers to consider alternative power sources — or going off the grid entirely — for their homes.
Solar Design's projects include a beachfront estate in Martha's Vineyard, a solar power system for the White House and The Solaire, a residential tower in downtown Manhattan that has solar panels built into its skin.
R. James Woolsey, who directed the Central Intelligence Agency from 1993 to 1995, has a photovoltaic system on his home in Maryland.
Then there's Burnt Point, a sprawling estate in the Hamptons that sold in January for $45 million and was featured on the Most Expensive Homes in America beginning in 2001, before being taken off the market in 2004. The 18,000-square-foot house, built by commodities trader David Campbell, features a private dock, a swimming pool and a geothermal cooling system. It's far from the amenity-deprived life once associated with alternative energy.
The decision to install the system at Burnt Point was “more aesthetic than environmental or financial,” says Robert Lenahan, a partner at Fleetwood, Lenahan and McMullen, the firm that designed the home. The system pulls cold water out of the ground and uses it to cool air that is distributed around the house. And since it's hidden underground, there are no air conditioning units cluttering up the land.
In places with abundant underground hot springs (think Iceland), high-temperature water can be drawn up to heat houses, and steam can be used to generate electricity. In the U.S., low-temperature geothermal systems use ground source heat pumps to take advantage of the consistent temperatures below ground. Water or refrigeration fluid is circulated into the earth — where heat or cold is easily dissipated — and then returned to the surface to heat or cool a building.
Back above ground, photovoltaic panels that create electricity from the sun are a more common option.
“They are becoming more and more cost effective,” says Joe Wiehagen, senior research engineer for the National Association of Home Builders Research Center. Depending on local incentives and energy costs, solar power can cost the same as utility power in the long run. “And when you buy a solar system, you're buying all your fuel costs for the next 20 to 25 years.”
Joe and Carrie Piazza bought their house on No Name Key, Fla., in 1999, spending about $40,000 to install a power system that includes solar panels, controls, batteries and a generator. But last year, the couple's fuel bill was just $1,000.
“The solar runs the whole house, except for central air conditioning,” says Joe Piazza. “There's a great misconception that people in solar houses rough it. The reality is, if it's sized correctly and you're prepared to spend enough money, it functions like any other system.”
Advances in technology have created lighter, stronger and more efficient wind-power blades, Strong says. On an estate on Martha's Vineyard, his company installed an array of micro wind turbines that would not impede the view, poking just a few feet above the tree canopy.
Alternative energy systems are very climate-specific, says Vernon McKown, an owner of Ideal Homes, an Oklahoma building company that is trying to create affordable, energy-efficient housing. “What makes a good energy tradeoff in Denver, Colo.; Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn.; and Dallas, Texas is totally different. Texas is a big air conditioning market, and heating is irrelevant.”
For a vacation house on the north shore of Lake Superior in Canada, Solar Design Associates installed turbines that run on wind in the winter and photovoltaic panels that collect the sun in the summer. But that wouldn't necessarily fly in Florida.
Being energy-independent isn't just a matter of throwing truckloads of money into solar panels and diesel generators, experts say. A thoughtfully designed house can use a small fraction of the amount of energy a normal house would without compromising comfort.
“What the whole energy efficiency industry is moving towards is more of a well-sealed building,” Wiehagen says.
New insulating technologies mean less energy loss, he says. High-performance windows with triple panes of glass and special coatings may cost two or three times as much as regular windows, but they keep energy in while maintaining a clear view. Tankless water heaters heat and distribute water instantaneously instead of storing it hot.
All of which mean you can have solar power and the hot tub, too.
“You can do anything you want with renewables if you're willing to make the investment,” Strong says. “You can have everything from a basic cabin to an opulent mansion.”
© 2012 Forbes.com