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VERMONT -- Brian Thompson had visitors at his Charlotte home last Saturday -- 45, to be exact. His house, which uses a wind turbine and solar panels to generate the energy that runs his appliances, lights and hot water, was one of five stops on the Greater Burlington Renewable Energy Guided Tour. "On a day like today," Thompson said, indicating the brilliant sunshine and steady breeze, "my electric meter spins backwards."

Saturday's tour was one of more than 100 similar events across the country. The American Solar Energy Society has been sponsoring these tours since 1995. This year, with fuel rates soaring and the wind-energy debate at full tilt, it seemed particularly timely. About 60 people participated in Burlington's event.

For tour guide Toben Galvin of the Renewable Energy Resource Center -- a project of the Burlington-based Vermont Energy Investment Corporation -- the event was an opportunity to advertise RERC's Vermont Solar and Small Wind Incentive Program. It provides residents and businesses that install solar electric, small wind or solar hot water systems with grants of up to $10,000, or 25 to 30 percent of the installation cost. In its first year, the program awarded a total of $961,000.

The tour also let participants see different systems in person and speak with the people who actually use them. "It's an unbelievably good feeling," Harry Atkinson said, looking at the solar panels and wind turbines atop his building on Battery Street. "It makes you feel like you're doing something good for the environment -- and you are."

One big question on people's minds was how long it takes for the initial investment to pay itself back. The owners didn't try to hide the fact that solar and wind systems -- even with the incentive programs in place -- are not cheap. "Through savings on electric and oil heating bills, our solar hot water system will pay itself back in about 12 years," said Peter Jones, a South Burlington homeowner with a solar electric system. His place was the second stop on the tour. "The photovoltaic system will be 20 years," he added.

But Jones said that the initial costs shouldn't dissuade people. He offered advice for how to make a home more energy-efficient even before considering a renewable energy system. Some of his tips were more obvious than others. "Turn off the light when you leave a room," he suggested. "We replaced our incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents. We heat with wood. We replaced our old, energy-sucking refrigerator with an energy-efficient one. It's a lifestyle change. It might be a drag to hang-dry your laundry, but I say, 'Hey, I get to listen to the birds sing in my yard while I do it.'"

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