We've had a very cold and snowy winter in Kansas City so far this season — much colder than the last few years. As a result, my gas furnace seems to run almost nonstop. So when I saw the gas bill in the mail pile the other day, I felt pretty apprehensive. In past years (when it was this cold for weeks on end), I'd seen bills near $400 on more than one occasion. So when I opened the envelope and read $225, I was actually quite relieved. Looks like those replacement windows I installed on our main level last fall are already starting to provide us with an energy-savings payback. Despite my relief, I began to wonder just how my bill compared to other homes in my subdivision of comparable size. With no real way to judge my home's energy performance against those of similar shape and size, my curiosity mounted. If I only had access to this information, I would know once and for all if my home was still an “energy hog” — and take more drastic steps to improve it.

It seems that a few energy companies across the United States have implemented pilot programs to address such concerns. They're sending some of their customers monthly report cards on their energy usage, where customers' electricity and natural gas usage levels are presented in colorful bar charts that tell them how they stack up against 100 neighbors in similar-sized homes. If their levels are better than most, then they're rewarded with a smiley face sticker. Okay, I like the concept here, but the smiley face sounds a little corny to me. The good news is that early results from these pilot programs show energy use has dropped 2% to 3%, and most customers seem to be happy with the report card updates.

Some electric utilities have taken this a step further by testing in-home display devices that allow customers to track their electrical consumption in real time. The devices are meant to help them better understand the immediate effects of using various pieces of electrical equipment. Although this sounds interesting, I'm not sure I currently need this level of detail in my home. It's not like I'm running the electric clothes dryer for no good reason or leaving the lights on in every room of the house. (That problem was solved when my son left for college.)

This concept got me thinking. I would find value in this type of home display device, if I had some form of power generation source on my property. I could easily see myself becoming obsessed with tracking the output levels of a fuel cell in my basement or a roof-mounted windmill or solar panel array. Monitoring the output levels of these types of units and trying to achieve a net-zero level of consumption would definitely capture and hold my attention. Better yet, what if I could reach the point where I was selling the excess power I produced back to my local energy company? Although this scenario is currently an option for some U.S. customers, the percentage is a mere fraction of the population.

Unfortunately, I don't see this happening for me anytime soon. The installation costs associated with these types of residential renewable energy systems are still too high for me. Yes, the costs have come down in recent years — and they'll continue to do so. And tax rebates being offered by the government do make it affordable for some homeowners. But there's still much work to be done before we reach a point where these systems are more affordable for the masses.

My hope is that one day in the near future I'll be able to feel a sense of satisfaction knowing that I'm producing all or most of the power I need for my own home — and doing so with clean and efficient generation equipment.