Little Steps

From the outside, Paul Westbrook's house looks pretty normal. White brick, two stories, a few shrubs out front, nothing special. Judging by appearances, it's a house owned by someone who doesn't care much about appearances.

But the '70s-era-looking house is hardly normal. Its walls have a Styrofoam core, its roof is reflective and its air conditioning and heating system is geothermal, meaning the air that heats and cools the house comes from under the ground.

Westbrook's house, which looks so modest and unassuming from the outside, is actually ahead of its time, and is one of the most unique homes in Fairview, a rural community off Central Expressway between Allen and McKinney. The house was designed to reduce Westbrook's utility bills--and it has worked. While neighbors pay as much as $500 to cool their homes during the summer, Westbrook's utility bill is usually between $70 and $100 a month.

Or at least it was. Residential electricity rates in Texas have jumped 55 percent in the last five years and continue to rise. When Westbrook noticed his utility bill was going up, despite all he had done to reduce it, he decided to invest in a wind generator.

The turbine, which is manufactured by Arizona-based Southwest Windpower, was installed last Wednesday. It stands 34 feet tall and has three blades, which are each 6 feet long. The wind generator connects directly to the home to supply power (when the wind is not blowing, the home is powered by the local electric utility) and is expected to save Westbrook between $600 and $1,000 a year. It costs between $8,500 and $11,000 to purchase and install.

So far, none of Westbrook's neighbors have come over to complain about the tall windmill-like structure that sits on a small hill on his two-acre lot. Instead, they have asked how they can get one.

Westbrook, who lives with his wife and teenage daughter, has been interested in reducing energy consumption since high school, when he built solar collectors. After he finished his house, he invited several top-level executives at Texas Instruments, where he works, to tour it. At his urging, they agreed to use some of the same techniques in the design of their new 1 million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Richardson (Westbrook is on the T.I. facility design team). When the facility opens next year, Westbrook says T.I. will save as much as $4 million a year on utility bills because of the energy-saving elements used in its construction.

Westbrook hopes more companies will do the same. And he hopes that in his neighborhood, where most everyone lives on acre lots, the big wind turbines will catch on. "I expect to see them sprout like bluebonnets," he said.

The key to reduce energy consumption is for everyone to do something, no matter how large or small it is, he says.

"If all of us take a few little steps, then the impact will be very great."

 
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