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Are American homes more energy efficient? Not exactly.

President Obama has pledged to end America┬┐s dependence on foreign oil and his administration is spending billions on greener energy initiatives. Few issues are considered more urgent by the White House and average Americans than securing affordable and more environmentally friendly energy sources.

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Some environmental groups want to go further and perhaps even to challenge the conventional wisdom that the best way to make homes more energy efficient is to make the changes invisible -- hidden inside new appliances, for example.

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Steve Nadel of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy said the old idea was that customers would never really have to sacrifice to save. That strategy was born at the end of the energy crisis of the 1970s out of unhappy memories of wearing sweaters indoors.

"Energy prices were going up, and people really did want to do things" to save energy, Nadel said. "But then energy prices moderated, and people said, 'We want to go back to the old things.' "

Now, he said, "Do we tell people that 'Maybe you should consume a bit less?' I think we need to do more of that."

The current messages from the government and mainstream groups such as Nadel's do not urge serious gadget purges. Their tips on saving energy start with better insulation and sealed ductwork and proceed to choosing more efficient light bulbs and unplugging "vampire" devices. They usually urge customers to buy Energy Star-rated appliances and electronics rather than to stop buying them altogether.

It is possible to get modern, wired-up Americans to cut back sharply on power use, said Alan Meier, associate director of the Energy Efficiency Center at the University of California at Davis. He cited as evidence a shift in Juneau, Alaska, where in 2008 avalanches severed the city's connection to a hydroelectric dam -- and raised rates more than 400 percent.

Residents saved energy by washing dishes by hand and eating by candlelight, according to news reports. The town cut its power use by 25 percent, Meier said.

But is it possible to replicate that in the rest of the country, where electric power remains fairly cheap?

"That's a good question," Meier said. It remains to be seen, he said, whether people are willing to change their habits and make them permanent.


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