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Humans are using up the earth's natural resources at an astounding rate. If you're looking for a way to lesson your ecological footprint, renewable energy is the way to go. Solar-generated power and heat are great alternatives to utilizing the earth's fixed amount of fossil fuels to maintain the lifestyles to which we've become accustomed. The great part is that using solar energy will actually help you save money, while also working to save the environment.

How can I go green in the city?

Living in an urban environment can be great for your lifestyle, but hard on your pocket. Utilizing solar-powered electricity can really help cut down on your bills and save you some hard-earned green. Start by checking with your landlord or apartment building owner to see if the installation of solar panels or wind generators on the roof is an option. However, in many cases, the answer will be no.

But that doesn't mean you can't utilize solar energy in your own apartment. Stanford University students have invented a solar panel that is perfect for the urban dweller. It is still in development, but the company is called Veranda Solar and they plan to bring panels and flexible inverters to the renewable energy market in early 2010. Their solar panels are smaller than traditional roof-mounted panels and are designed so that they can be attached to balconies and windowsills. They work best in direct sunlight and the energy produced by the solar panels can be used to run any device that plugs into your wall. Stanford researchers estimate the cost to come out to $600 to $800 (or $6 to $10 per watt) for a complete Veranda Solar system ready to be installed by the consumer.

Passive solar heaters

Another green option for reducing your energy bills is to follow passive solar heating and cooling techniques that take advantage of the sun's heat without using any active mechanical equipment. Zero Energy Design does a great job of explaining how these techniques can be used to design a new home or retrofit an existing home's heating and energy systems. However, if you're looking for an easy-to-implement change that won't run up a large bill, you can easily build a passive solar heater right now. All you need for this project is a box, a piece of glass or plastic and a south-facing window. Start out by either glazing the glass/plastic or painting it black. This will attract and trap heat. Then glue the glass/plastic to the outside of the box and create a small opening to allow air in and attach the box contraption just outside your window. Make another hole on the part of the box facing inside your home through the window to let the sun-heated air inside the box enter into your home. This very basic homemade heater uses the heat produced by the sun to heat your home without running up any bills and you can easily remove it when you no longer need additional heat.

Use your windows correctly

Many people don't realize that their existing windows can help reduce energy bills by being covered correctly to either keep heat from coming in or prevent it from getting out. Direct sunlight coming through your windows on a hot day will heat up your house and encourage you to turn up the A/C. However, if you add a simple shade or blind, you will block the full amount of heat from entering your apartment and you can turn the A/C down or off and save on your energy bill. On the other hand, cold weather can seep into your home through naked windows in the wintertime. A savvy solution is to combine shutters with heavy curtains or drapes so that you can open the window coverings during the day and let the sun come in, but close up everything at night to prevent heat loss. Simple window coverings like those sold by Factory Bargain Drapes can help you save a lot of money over the course of the year.

Thinking green in the city

In addition to the eco-friendly changes you can make inside your home, you can also make an effort to be a patron of businesses in your city that are moving towards an eco-friendly environment. For example, Ted's Montana Grill is a restaurant chain committed to being 99% plastic-free and energy efficient. The Tallahassee, Fla. branch has 66 solar panels on its roof and all of the restaurants in the chain use recyclable and biodegradable materials as much as possible (i.e. menus, bottles, to-go containers, and cups). Check out the restaurant's website locator to find a location near you and in general, try to be more conscious of other local restaurants and stores making the effort to serve you in an eco-friendly environment. Every little bit helps - both inside and outside your home.

This article was reprinted with permission. It originally appeared here on