When you think of "solar energy," you probably envision those big ugly solar silicon panels from the past. Today, homeowners have exciting options not only for powering their entire home but for also using solar energy to power their laptops, cell phones, and even their car batteries when there is a power outage or when they are traveling.

With oil prices climbing once again it makes sense to look for energy alternatives. There are a number of different ways that you can increase your energy efficiency simply by managing the sun’s energy.

1. Window coverings
Our home has a tremendous number of windows that capitalize on the great view. The challenge is those windows can heat up our house by an additional 20 to 30 degrees if they are not covered in the summertime. They also lower the interior temperature during the winter. If you live in an area that has hot temperatures, solar shades can cut your energy costs significantly. Another option is to add solar film to your windows. This is similar to the tinting that many cars have and cuts down on the amount of radiant heat inside your home.

2. Radiant barriers
Approximately 93 percent of the ceiling heat during the summer results from heat being absorbed by the shingles and then being transferred through the roofing materials into the attic. While traditional insulation absorbs some of this heat, a considerable amount still passes into the interior living spaces. Installing a radiant barrier can lower your attic temperatures by almost 30 degrees. Radiant-barrier manufacturers claim that using a radiant barrier can block 97 percent of the radiant heat coming from the roofing. This can result in up to a 50 percent savings on your air conditioning bill.

To give you an example, our former home was 3,200 square feet and was well shaded by numerous oak trees. It had high-quality insulation but no radiant barrier. We installed a radiant barrier when we built our current 4,500-square-foot home. Even with the increase in energy costs, one additional refrigerator, huge windows, plus 60 days of 100-degree-plus temperatures (where the average is normally 12 days), our electric bill is running only $40 more per month than before.

3. Metal roofs
Another solar-efficient option is to replace your shingle roof with metal. The metal reflects the sun and functions much like a radiant barrier.

4. Solar panel systems
A few days ago, I received an advertisement from a company that was selling solar panel systems. The cost of a solar panel system was $23,975. The company went on to explain about all the rebates that lowered the price even more:

City energy rebate of $3.75 per watt equals $11,222
Company rebate of $2 per watt equals $6,300
Total rebates equal $17,522
Net cost ($23,975 minus $17,522) equals $6,453 …CONTINUED

There are also state and federal tax credits available for installing solar. Tax credits are better than tax deductions since they represent a dollar-for-dollar reduction in your taxes. Deductions have value based upon your tax bracket. For example, a $1,000 deduction is worth $150 if you are in the 15 percent tax bracket. If you were receiving a tax credit, that same $1,000 would be worth the full $1,000. To check out what types of energy rebates are available in your state, click here.

In addition to the rebates, the company projected an annual savings of $637 in energy costs. Without considering the tax incentives, it would take 10 years to recoup the cost of this system.

Even with all of these incentives, is installing a solar panel system a good deal for your home? The reason that solar panel technology hasn’t ever caught on is the cost. It’s actually cheaper to rely on current energy sources.

5. Hot innovation
A research team headed by Vivian Alberts of South Africa has created an exciting new product called solar film. (This is different from what people currently install in their windows.) Solar film is a flexible, thin, metal alloy that is "photo-responsive." Instead of the $4 per watt that traditional solar panel systems cost, the new solar film systems will reportedly cost about $1.20 per watt.

This competes favorably with gas, coal and oil resources. Instead of taking 10 years to recover your cost, it will take only one to two years, according to reports. A standard single-family home would need about 30 square meters (about 323 square feet) to meet all its electricity demands (about the size of a typical living room). To see a building that is currently using this technology, visit treehugger.com.

What’s particularly exciting is that this new technology could be used to power your laptop, your cell phone, and is even powerful enough to charge your car battery. The folks at Brunton have created a solar roll that is 12 inches by 57 inches that can do all of these things (cost is $295).

This would be especially useful to have in an emergency where there is no power. Another company, Voltaic, has designed a computer carrying case that harvests solar power that you can use to charge your computer. Even if the power is out, you could still run your laptop.

Your options for becoming more solar efficient are rapidly improving. Even if you’re not ready to install a major solar energy system in your home, some of the less expensive options may be good backups for unexpected emergencies.

Bernice Ross, CEO of RealEstateCoach.com, is a national speaker, trainer and author of "Real Estate Dough: Your Recipe for Real Estate Success" and other books. You can reach her at Bernice@RealEstateCoach.com and find her on Twitter: @bross.


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