But a low-priced home is no bargain in the long run if it wastes energy. "You may pay a few dollars more on your mortgage payment, but you'll pay many dollars less on your utility bill," Harris says. "It's the sum of those, in cash flow to consumers, that really matters." Certainly, the payback on such investments is quicker in states with high electricity rates. But if the nation takes steps to cut carbon emissions, as seems inevitable, the price paid for fossil-fueled electricity will get higher even in states where efficiency makes less economic sense today. "These are half-century assets," Harris argues. "Why should we build infrastructure that basically is going to become another kind of dinosaur?" NAHB counters that the far bigger problem is the dinosaurs already among us: existing homes.
Reducing energy use in older homes is not easy. People are beginning to switch to twisty compact fluorescent light bulbs, which burn 75 percent less electricity than old-fashioned incandescents, with upfront costs recouped in less than a year. But the payback is neither so quick nor so clear on other items. Christine Rovner, director of Student Pugwash USA, a nonprofit that focuses on science and social responsibility, says she and her husband hired a heating and cooling system expert to advise them on steps they could take in their 60-year-old house in Washington, D.C. The windows, she knows, leak and need replacing, but she hasn't priced new ones. "We're too scared to," she says. She and her husband are weighing that possible outlay against other pressing costs, like day care for their young daughter and college savings. She thinks investing in appliances with the government's Energy Star label will be their next budget item. "We're watching our refrigerator and waiting for it to go," Rovner says.
Hogs 2.0. A swap to a new, efficient fridge would save enough energy to light the average household for nearly four months, Energy Star estimates, with an overall payback of about three years. But today, families can easily lose the gains they make in energy upgrades. At EPRI's Living Laboratory for Energy Efficiency in Knoxville, Tenn., researchers are tracking why the home electricity load is growing. Take, for instance, the set-top box—the converter needed to receive cable or satellite signals. These boxes are always in a ready state and draw as much power when they are turned off as when they are turned on. EPRI estimates each set-top box consumes about half the electricity of a new Energy Star refrigerator.
Of course, those set-top boxes are only one element of the home entertainment center. EPRI's testing shows that in energy use, those must-have 42-inch flat-screen TVs tower over the old 27-inch cathode-ray tube sets they're replacing. Reddoch notes that the traditional home centers of electricity use—heating, lighting, refrigeration, hot water—all have grown more efficient. "But the bad news is we've got this miscellaneous-electronics category—what we call the plug-in loads," he says. "They all are increasing."
Not far from EPRI's test center, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory set out to prove how to drive down home energy use. Working with the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity and the Tennessee Valley Authority, they designed five homes with tight walls and windows, energy-sipping appliances, and ductwork inside the building envelope. The families, who didn't own homes before, helped build the modest three-bedroom dwellings. They pay $1 per day or less for electricity, while neighbors in similar homes fork over four to six times as much. Becky Clark says she has seen her monthly electric bill get down to $11 in the summer. And she likes that her 10-year-old son, Bradley, did a school science project on the home.
But electricity is still an essential fuel of our lifestyles. One December evening soon after the homes were built in 2003, Jeff Christian, Oak Ridge's director of building technology, rushed to see if the monitors were out of whack but found the sky-high readings were due to a festoon of Christmas lights and inflatable snowmen. He didn't mind: "These were families who had trouble affording to eat, who could enjoy the holidays this way because their electricity costs were so low."