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Monday, November 16, 2009

Microsoft's Bid to Control Energy Efficiency in Your Home

You thought only Google with its PowerMeter solution was going to help you save energy at home?

Well, the folks at Microsoft, who have been involved with developing various prototypes of home energy monitoring and control systems, have come up with Hohm.

See it work at

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Search National Database for Utility Rebates in Your Area

Thinking about buying a new appliance or upgrading your home to make it more efficient?

Look here
for possible rebates or incentives from your local utility. We did, and we found rebates from the electric company and the water company for installing a high efficiency clothes washer.

What's more, some utilities and appliance manufactures offer cash incentives for you to get rid of your old refrigerators. Check out the ENERGY STAR website for news about local refrigerator recycling programs.

Whatever you do, don't spend a nickel until you make sure there isn't a rebate program in effective. It will help you stretch a little bit and buy a more efficient appliance, which can lower your total energy usage ... and your utility bill.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Smart Meters Create Headaches for Energy Users

The Good and Bad
About this Emerging Technology

Smart meter technology -- which is a computer-based meter that the utility hooks up to your house that can provide you with real-time information about your energy use -- is coming. You may already have a smart meter attached to your home. If not, you will -- in about 5 years the majority of homes in the USA will be using smart electric and gas meters.

There are good and bad aspects.
  • The good: You can look at your use in real time -- from your utility's website or from Google PowerMeter -- and take control of your use and bill.
  • The bad: Your utility can read your meter automatically and remotely. That means no more meter readers walking around manually reading and recording your energy usage. Who can afford to lose a job in this economy?
  • Also bad: More to the point of this blog, your electric bills may increase -- a lot -- and that in spite of the fact that you may have reduced how much energy you used.
To learn about this nasty possible blow back from smart meters, check out what happened to PG&E's customers in Bakersfield, California (read the comments from PG&E's customers -- $600 energy bill for just two weeks!)

Customers got new meters just when the big air conditioning season got started -- it can get really hot in Bakersfield).

And their bills went through the roof.

Energy savings can be achieved using these meters -- see how one newspaper tried to explain this -- but you have to be planning ahead.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Free Teacher Resources: Teaching Energy Efficiency in Class

Teach energy efficiency, meet curriculum standards, and help your students' families lower utility bills -- all for free!

For elementary and middle school teachers, the painful reality of the current round of budget cuts stemming from the international credit crisis mean only one thing: fewer dollars to meet state curriculum standards.

Electric utilities provide teachers free curriculum resources. In particular, books and educational websites. Also, many government agencies provide free resources for teachers.

Here are a few:
In addition, local utilities promote energy efficiency education, delivering booklets and teachers' guides for free to any educator in their service area. Many include website that support their programs.

Look for:
There are many more. If you are a teacher, call your local utility and see if they're offering free resources. If you're a parent, help your kid's teacher learn about these great tools.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sarah Palin's Energy Efficiency Stimulus Veto Overturned

Alaska politicians overturned Sarah Palin's earlier decision to not use federal stimulus funds that were earmarked for energy efficiency improvements.

Alaska's new governor, Sean Parnell, announced he will use the $28.6 million to reduce energy costs in public facilities and to support ongoing programs that will help Alaskan's improve energy efficiency and lower utility bills.

You can read more about the article at The Huffington Post.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Alaska May Overturn Sarah Palin's Anti-Energy Efficiency Stimulus Package Stance

Former Alaskan Governor Sarah turned down some $28 million in federal funds that would be used to improve energy efficiency of local state, federal and municipal buildings. That now may be overturned, according to Alaskan news outlets.

Politics aside, this is good for Alaskans. It allows municipal utilities to garner extra dollars that can be used to improve their electric utility grid.

Due to the extreme nature of the credit crunch, municipal utilities have been the hardest hit in the energy sector. They've had to put nearly all of their improvement projects on hold while just trying to maintain cash flow and deal with massive debts. The same is true of many municipalities and states as their bond ratings have crashed with the crisis.

Now they can use money that will lower their costs -- and improve productivity. And we'll increase national security by making sure we extract the maximum amount of value from every kilowatthour produced on our own soil -- while ensuring we maintain and increase our reserves of other energy resources.

The energy efficiency stimulus will pay for these types of improvements:
  • Repairs and energy efficiency upgrades to federal, state, and local municipal buildings
  • Upgrades and renovations to Department of Defense facilities
  • Replacement of the aging electric utility grid with a new electronic grid that will allow businesses and residents to take advantage of time-of-day pricing
  • Low income weatherization projects, which allow low-income people to at least save a little on their energy bills and possibly live in greater comfort too
  • Renewable generation projects (wind, solar, etc.)
  • Research into advanced battery technologies, with the intention of having these new technologies manufactured in the United States instead of in China or Japan
  • Education and training for Americans for jobs in the energy sector
  • Investments in public transportation, improvements in water utility infrastructure and more
Some of this is flowing down to the average American too. Look for tax credits on improving furnaces. And as utilities improve the grid, we'll start seeing opportunities that will allow us to lower our home heating and air-conditioning costs.

For some tips on how to save right now, without waiting for the trickle down effect of these stimulus dollars, check out:

Sunday, August 02, 2009

Energy Efficient Buildings: With Just a Little Planning You Can Avoid Excessive Utility Bills

A brief run down on installing insulation in your home.

Improving building energy efficiency isn't all that hard, and it does not require investing in any new technology. In fact, it only takes using your brain -- and a little work.

The New Republic Magazine wrote a little piece about this in a recent issue: Efficient Buildings a No Brainer.

You need only remember a few key steps when thinking about your home and making the building more efficient.
  • Put in enough ceiling insulation. Any do-it-yourselfer can install a roll of fiberglass insulation. The stuff is available in various grades and from various manufacturers at most large household supply stores. Just make sure you put in the right amount of insulation for your geographic region. Colder climates warrant more insulation.
  • Patch up leaks. Again, a little caulking and weather stripping will go a long way to reduce unnecessary drafts around windows and doors. Older homes may need some patch work on the exterior, perhaps to seal up cracks in plaster walls. It may take a few days this summer, but you can seal up your house on your own, and save money in winter.
  • Weatherize heating and cooling ducts with insulation. Roles of insulation material are available at most hardware supply stores and you can wrap ducts in a weekend, while still stopping to watch the Tour de France.
  • Clean you furnace filter, and get a furnace check-up/tune-up before the heating season starts. If you have the need for a new furnace, be sure to invest in the most energy efficient furnace possible -- and check for government tax breaks!
Simple steps, and they'll not only increase energy efficiency while lowering utility bills -- they'll also improve the value of your home!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

U.S. Electric Upgrades Mean Higher Bills

Here’s proof you need to prepare for increased rates -- the electric utility system is going to be upgraded, and the cost of these upgrades will appear in your electric bills.

Read the Reuters story: U.S. electric grid needs major overhaul: utility

And then come back for more energy efficiency tips and recommendations.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

LED Lights -- An Emerging Alternative to CFLs

Drawbacks and benefits at a glance.

The photo was taken by Rinto Jiang and posted on Wikipedia and shows how LED lights are being used in large office spaces. Note that these lighting fixtures are similar to the fluorescent lighting fixtures that appear in many office buildings. This same technology is now becoming available for home use.

LEDs use less energy than incandescent bulbs, run cooler than either incandescents or CFLs, and they don't have the hazardous waste issues that CFLs have.

LED stands for "light emitting diode." These were developed in the 1920s, but they did not become commercially available until the 1960s and 1970s, when they were used in LED clocks or in hand-held calculators (remember those tiny red lights on those wafer-sized calculator black screens?).

Recently, they have been used on cars, in traffic signal lights, and some specialty street lighting. LEDs are relatively more expensive than their alternatives, and LED manufacturers have only recently begun to offer LED light bulbs that can be used in the home.

Also, due to their small size, brightness, and diversity of colors, they are used with some holiday lighting. (Check out holiday lighting at Amazon: LED Holiday Lights)

Importantly, however, manufacturers are now introducing a wide range of LED light bulbs for the home. See this listing of LED light bulbs for the home on Amazon: LED Light Bulbs for the Home

The key to understanding this technology is that it uses less energy than an old-fashioned incandescent bulb. CFL bulbs designed to produce a similar amount of light use the same amount of electricity as an LED bulb. CFL light bulbs are also relatively cheaper.

However, CFLs do contain hazardous substances and must be disposed of using your local garbage company's hazardous waste process (the same that you would use for batteries).

LED manufacturers also report that their light bulbs will last for years -- much longer than either an incandescent or CFL light bulb. That means the higher cost of the LED light bulb should be off set by the fact that you will not have to replace it as often as the other bulbs.

In discussing the uses of LED light bulbs, I have heard from some engineers that the quality of light cast by an LED light is not as bright as an incandescent, which is similar to the poor lighting quality of the first fluorescent light bulbs that had been introduced in the 1960s and 1970s.

This is a technology worth looking into.
U.S. DOE Scores D- on Internal Energy Audit

Failure to use or fix programmable thermostats wastes energy.

It's a simple fix -- one that any homeowner can make on his or her own to save energy at home.

The U.S. energy department flunked its own energy use audit.

According to a new story published July 23, 2009, the U.S. Department of Energy is wasting enough electricity to power more than 9,800 homes a year.

The problem: keeping the building heat and cooling systems running after DOE employees have left for the day.

The solution to this problem is to use, or replace broken or malfunctioning, ‘set back’ thermostats. Setback thermostats are thermostats that can be programmed to make furnaces or air-conditioner turn on and off at specific times of the day. They also allow you to pre-program thermostats to operate at specific temperatures.

In winter, these devices turn the temperature down when you leave the house, raising it back to a more comfortable level when you return home. And they perform a similar function in summer -- raising temperatures when you leave home, and lowering them to a more comfortable level automatically at the time when you are scheduled come back from your workday.

Some models of these smart thermostats come with such helpful features as a:
  • Signal that reminds you when to change the furnace or air-conditioner filter
  • Lock that prevents random changes to the thermostat’s settings
  • Automatic modification of temperature settings with changes of the season
  • Low battery warning indicator
These devices are available at most hardware stores, and online. They aren't cheap -- but then they are a lot less expensive than leaving the heat on during the winter when no one is at home.

So check them out and let a digital device manage your thermostat automatically -- while improving energy efficiency and lowering utility bills.

Read more about the DOE's ironic little failure at

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Time to Analyze Your Home Energy Use ...

With an easy to follow checklist that helps you examine how you use energy at home.

Here is a simple quiz you can take to analyze your energy usage.

  1. Do you regularly maintain and service your heating and cooling system? That is, do you clean or replace filters regularly, according to manufacturer's instructions, and do you conduct an annual system tune-up?
  2. In summer, do you keep your air-conditioner thermostat set at 78 degrees Fahrenheit?
  3. In winter, do you keep your furnace thermostat set at 68 degrees Fahrenheit?
  4. Have you sealed windows with and exterior doors with weather stripping, and/or have you used caulk around windows and exterior doors to block out drafts?
  5. On hot summer days, do you block out the heat by closing drapes and blinds?
  6. In winter, do you open the drapes to allow natural daylight in to light and heat your home?
  7. Do you wash your laundry in cold water?
  8. Do you use water saving showerheads in your bathrooms?
  9. Do you only dry full loads in the clothes dryer?
  10. Do you only wash full loads in the dishwasher?
  11. Do you turn off lights, televisions, and computers when not using them?
  12. Do you use compact fluorescent lights in your home?
  13. Do you unplug appliances that are rarely used?
If you answered yes to only 5 of these questions, there is a lot you can do to improve energy efficiency and lower utility bills.

If you answered yes to at least 10 questions, then you're doing a really good job. Congratulations!

Online home energy check up tool

The Alliance to Save Energy, which has been promoting energy efficiency for decades, provides an online tool for assessing your energy use. It's not super intuitive to use, as tools go. But it can provide you with some ideas as to how you can improve energy efficiency.

The tool is here at

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

Obama Supports Research to Improve Fluorescent Lighting

But are fluorescent lamps the only energy efficient alternative to help lower utility bills?

The Obama administration has established new energy efficiency standards for fluorescent lamps and incandescent lamps used in residential and commercial buildings.

The administration has embarked on a $346 million effort in research and development of lighting products that will increase energy efficiency and lower utility bills by $1 billion to $4 billion annually.

View the video:

Incandescents are being phased out in numerous countries, including parts of the USA and Canada, to be replaced by fluorescent bulbs. CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) are becoming more cost competitive with the old incandescents, mainly due to their lower energy use -- I've seen estimates ranging from one fifth to one third the energy use of a comparable incandescent light bulb.

That said, one must remember that CFLs contain mercury, a hazardous substance, and need to be disposed of properly to prevent mercury from entering our water.

Also, there appears to be some concern about ultraviolet lights, although what I've read suggests this may be a minor issue.

Technologies other than the proposed improvements to fluorescent bulbs may be better in the long run. For instance, many utilities are talking about the use of LED technology as a way to improve lighting efficiency.

Learn about these at a cool industry supported website, the Lighting Research Center.

The LRC is supported by government agencies interested in promoting energy conservation, including the California Energy Commission, the US EPA, the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, and the Iowa Energy Center.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Air-Conditioning – Won't Live Without It

Five sure-fire tips for improving air-conditioner energy efficiency.

A new national survey shows that only 14% of Americans are willing to give up air-conditioning if they knew that doing so would hurt the environment.

The flip side of that: about 86% of Americans are telling us they just can't live without air-conditioning in summer.

Few of us live in environments where the air cools naturally in summer and is not humid and muggy. Air-conditioning is more than a convenience. Air-conditioning is a modern necessity.

But electricity powers our air-conditioners, and electricity does pollute. So, how can we best use our air-conditioners to keep pollution at a minimum?

Here are five sure-fire ways to better manage your air-conditioner without feeling muggy and uncomfortable.

  1. Set the thermostat of your air conditioner to 78 degrees. That may sound like it’s too high, especially in some areas of the country. But keeping your thermostat to 78 degrees will delay turning on the machine. And even a short delay can help reduce energy usage.
  2. Clean your air conditioner. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions and thoroughly clean you’re unit. Be sure to clear away leaves and other obstructions from outside condenser coils and grilles, and replace or clean the filters. Other tips: Make sure the fan spins freely. Oil the fan motor. Check duct insulation for tears and repair as needed.
  3. Use natural cooling in mornings. You can bring down the temperature in your home by opening windows early and allowing the cool morning air inside. Before the sun begins to bake the ground, however, close the windows and keep what cool air you’ve got.
  4. Shade out the sun. Draw draperies and shades, close shutters, or install awnings, solar screens, and reflective window screens to block out sunlight and heat. Even shading north windows, which are not directly affected by the sun, can help keep heat reflected from driveways, porches, and sidewalks.
  5. Avoid using heat-producing appliances inside. On hot days and nights, try to not use your big heat generating appliances, such as the oven or dishwashers. Wait until it's cooler. Hang your laundry outside instead of using a dryer. Cook outdoors or use the microwave.
Check out the press release about the survey.

The survey was conducted by the Shelton Group, an advertising agency located in Knoxville, Tennessee, that focuses on issues involving sustainability. The survey is conducted each year and is called the Eco-Pulse survey.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Make the First Day of Summer Your First Day of Energy Savings

10 Top Summertime Energy Efficiency Tips

The first day of summer is just around the corner -- June 21, 2009 -- the day of the summer solstice.

While you take advantage of summer to relax at the beach or by the pool, be sure to also take advantage of the warm weather and long sunny days to save some energy and lower your utility bills.

Here are a 10 simple steps to lowering utility bills through energy efficiency. You'll probably save money that you can use toward a vacation.
  1. Turn off the furnace.
  2. Clean or replace the air-conditioner filter.
  3. Set your air-conditioner thermostat to 78 degrees Fahrenheit -- although senior citizens or people with medical conditions should consult their physicians before changing their normal home temperature.
  4. Set the water heater thermostat to its energy efficiency setting.
  5. Hang wash on a line to dry whenever possible.
  6. When using a clothes dryer, dry only full loads.
  7. Use cold water in your washing machine, and always wash full loads.
  8. With a dishwasher, wash only full loads and skip the drying cycle if the machine's instructions allow.
  9. Pull drapes and blinds and close doors and windows during the day to keep cool air in and hot air out, and open windows and drapes at night to let cool air in.
  10. Replace incandescent bulbs with Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs).

Thursday, June 18, 2009

We've Posted an Article on Squidoo

Check out new web page focusing on summer energy efficiency tips

The URL to visit the page is:

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Bottle Water -- Bad for Energy Efficiency

If you want to reduce energy use overall -- not just your energy use, but usage everywhere -- maybe you should stop buying bottled water.

According to a recent study, the energy needed to create the plastic bottles, process and purify and bottle the water, and ship the stuff to your store, used somewhere between 32 million to 54 million barrels of oil -- in one year (2007).

A barrel of oil goes for $70 right now -- that's $2 billion to $3.75 billion wasted -- because the stuff comes out of our taps!

Check out the study.

Even if you don't believe in this stuff and think these guys are wacko, if we cut their estimates by 80% that would still result in $448 million to $756 million spent in one year on making plastic to ship water that already comes out of the faucet on our kitchen sinks.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Is Energy Efficiency Reducing Demand for Oil?

BP Thinks So

A recent report from BP Oil suggests that energy efficiency trends are reducing demand for oil -- which means that rather than running out of oil due to dwindling supplies (i.e., peak oil), we will see usage drop and so the pressure on demand will decline.

But that's not all: BP also reported that in China, India and other so called 'developing' economies the demand for energy was greater than the demand in the USA and other developed countries.

The entire story appears in the Times Online.

This suggests that energy efficiency will help us import less oil -- certainly a strategic and national security advantage -- but it will conversely help make it easier for China and others to import oil they need for their growing economies.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Energy efficiency and the Google PowerMeter

Those of us who support energy efficiency do so for a number of reasons, depending upon who we are and what we care about.

I care about lowering my utility bills -- the rates our utilities will be charging in the future will continue to rise: I don't want to get stuck with a bill that is any higher than it has to be.

Further -- all unresolved issues in the debate not withstanding -- common sense tells me that humanity has had a great impact on the environment. Reducing waste is a way of mitigating the impact.

Waste is everywhere -- in what we throw away; the fresh water we allow to run down the drain; and the amount of electricity, natural gas, oil, propane, wood we use to heat our homes and make our lives healthier and more productive than the lives of our forebears.

Which is a long way of saying: I think there is something to climate change. Is it CO2 or some equivalent? The scientists are still trying to find the answers.

But we can do things now that will have a positive impact one way or another.

I read on a PG&E blog that a home in the United States produces twice as much CO2 emissions as an automobile. Maybe so.

But a home definitely uses more energy than it should.

If you want to realize energy savings then you need to know how much you're using right now.

There are a number of tools that will help you estimate usage -- but a new one of great promise is coming over the horizon: The Google PowerMeter.

Twenty years ago my company was involved with a similar project that included Microsoft -- that other big monolith in the IT world. The technology we were looking at would allow you to track energy use in real time. The technology was not ready in the 1980s.

But now, the world has changed and Google is once again way out in front.

Utilities are investing in new IT infrastructure that will allow them to give you the power to analyze in real time the electricity and natural gas usage in your home. PowerMeter takes advantage of that new infrastructure to help you monitor household energy usage.

PowerMeter is being tested now. A few Google employees have been working on the pilot test. Here are some of their experiences.

Check out PowerMeter on Google's website.

We still have a few years to go before this technology is available widely.

But you don’t have to wait – and you shouldn’t wait. You’ll be paying more for energy than you really need to.

To get an estimate, if not a real-time assessment, of your household use, try the resources listed on this earlier entry of Energy Efficiency and Lowering Utility Bills.

Monday, June 01, 2009

A rug that is a heater?

Ever think about generating heat from your carpets or floor rugs? Apparently someone has and is adapting nanotechnology to do the job.

A university in Poland developed a prototype carpet that uses carbon nano tubes for heating. The floor covering is plugged into a wall outlet to make the heater work. Apparently it uses very little energy.

Sounds like a great way to heat a particular room, or keep your toes warm when the temperature drops.

You don't have to wait for nanotechnology to heat under your rugs. Products exist today that allow you to put an electric "heating blanket" under your rugs today.

Again, this sort of task-oriented heating is a good way to target your heating and perhaps minimize your energy bill. Remember, however, you should avoid using your furnace to heat the entire house while using a targeted electric heating device such as an electric rug warmer. Running both at the same time may cause your utility bill to skyrocket!

Want to buy one of these rugs? Check out this link: Rugbuddy

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Other people's money ... Other people's energy

Back when, a guy I knew was always starting a new business. He rarely used is own money (he didn't have much anyway). But he was a master at using other people's money to pay for his business ideas.

(There was a film with that same phrase as its title, with Danny Devito.)

Reviewing a video by Pacific Gas & Electric, the utility in San Francisco, California, I was reminded of this technique. And I realized you and I could and should consider using other people's energy to stay cool on hot summer days.

Using other people's energy will help you lower your utility bills ... because you'll be using less energy at home. Instead, you will be turning off the lights, locking up the door to your home, and finding someplace else to read, listen to music, watch videos and, ultimately, stay cool.

I can think of three relatively easy ways to do this.

1. Visit a shopping mall, library, or other indoor but public place that has air-conditioning. You don't have to pay to be in some of these places. But if there's a movie you like to see, try going to a movie theater during the afternoon when it's hottest.

On really hot days, visit a designated cooling center.

2. Drop into a coffee shop -- one with the a/c running and if you're lucky, free Internet access. Price of admission -- a cup of coffee.

3. Go to the beach, if you're near a coast, or a lake or stream ... or find a quiet place in a cool shaded wood to hang out until the sun sets and the day begins to cool.

Of course, when outdoors you won't be using any energy at all. But that's the pay off.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Obama Girl Energy Conservation Video

I've been impressed by the recent Obama Girl video on clean energy. SmartPower, a nonprofit, wanted a commercial that would help educated young men about energy efficiency.

SmartPower needed only $5,000 to get Amber Lee Ettinger and company (a.k.a. Obama Girl, a YouTube personality) to produce this fun PSA. It was picked up quickly on YouTube and elsewhere, helping spread the word about energy efficiency -- for a fraction of the cost of using traditional advertising media.

Now compare Obama Girl's effort with that of a traditional ad agency. The video below, well done, was funded by the European Union.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

EnergyFacts: Oil Price Drop, Energy Efficiency Report

This article points to two issues of concern: oil prices may drop, soon and suddenly. A sudden drop could wipe out investments in energy efficiency by institutions (schools, prisons, and hospitals) and businesses of all sizes.

This happened once before, during the years following the oil price shocks of the late 1970s. Government programs and tax incentives for efficiency investments were abandoned. Admittedly, the federal government made some big mistakes. However, many individuals and businesses woke up to the fact that if they spent a little more now on investing in energy efficient technologies, their overall utility bills would be lower, over time, than they would have otherwise been.

What is more, these individuals and businesses discovered that they could continue living comfortably or producing as much as they did before they made these investments.

In other words, people and businesses experienced productivity gains.

Yet I am amazed at how many commentators oppose efficiency investments! Review any blogs or news websites and you will find hundreds of people characterizing such investments as a bizarre plot to end the American way.

My research suggests that energy prices will rise -- especially electricity prices. They will rise for this reason: Utilities must invest in their infrastructure -- they must build and upgrade substations, power lines, and so on -- to make money. They don't make money on the electricity they sell. They make their money off of the capital investments that they make.

However, the capital markets which used to fund these investments have dried up. That means utilities will be funding projects out of revenues -- and they will have to increase revenues to continue to pay expenses and attract shareholders/investors.

Your rates will increase. Do something positive now, for yourself and your wallet: Cut the amount of energy you are using through energy efficiency ... and if you can, through alternative power sources such as rooftop solar.

True energy independence takes place at an individual level.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Facing south

A compass point that directs you toward energy efficiency

In winter, homes and apartments with extensive south-facing walls and windows are in a better position to benefit from passive solar heat. The winter sun beaming into the room adds light and increases warmth. This obviously improves the natural energy efficiency of the building and helps with lowering utility bills.

In summer, however, such homes are at a possible disadvantage: They collect and trap heat indoors -- when what the people inside really want is to prevent or reduce heat gain.

Blocking the sun to stay cool in summer is the key. There are numerous steps one can take to mitigate the effect of summer sunlight. Some, such as replacing old single pane windows with high-efficiency units, can be very expensive.

Shade is the cheapest and the most natural way to stop the sun’s heat-building rays. There are handful of things every person or family can do to prevent heat from building up inside their homes during the summer:
  • Apply window films to block out unwanted heat. These reflect heat away from the window, in many cases allowing in light but not the heat.
  • Indoors, close drapes or blinds during the day. These will block some of the sun's rays as well. When you leave your home for a time, close the drapes and windows to keep heat out anyway. Best keep the rooms dark and relatively cool while you're away.
  • Outdoors, use awnings or shade trellises to create attractive barriers that prevent the sun's rays from ever touching your walls and windows in the first place. This provides an attractive first line of defense against heat build-up.
  • Plant trees and shrubs that are green and leafy during the summer, but which lose their leaves in winter (so as to allow the sun's rays to come inside). Trees and plants block the sunlight before it comes into contact with your walls and windows. They are attractive, and they help the environment by absorbing carbon dioxide and giving back oxygen we need to breath.
So look around your living space, considering the points of the compass. South-facing windows provide interesting and attractive opportunities for keeping cool and comfortable in summer.

The following video discusses benefits of planting trees and shrubs on south-facing windows:

And TAP Plastics has posted an instructional video about window films, which offers some ideas as to how you might consider using these:

Saturday, May 09, 2009

20 Summer time energy efficiency tips

Keeping cool for less, while lowering utility bills

Those warm summer days will soon be upon us. Start thinking now about how to keep cool will keeping your utility bills low in summer.

Here are some tips, most of which cost little or next to nothing:
  1. Hang wash on a line to dry whenever possible.
  2. When using a clothes dryer, dry only full loads.
  3. Use cold water in your washing machine.
  4. Always wash full loads in your washing machine.
  5. With a dishwasher, wash only full loads. If the machine's instructions allow, don’t use the drying cycle.
  6. Pull drapes and blinds and close doors and windows during the day to keep cool air in and hot air out.
  7. Open windows and drapes at night to let cool air in.
  8. Set your air-conditioner thermostat to 78 degrees Fahrenheit -- although senior citizens or people with medical conditions should consult their physicians before changing their normal home temperature.
  9. Clean or replace air-conditioner filters monthly, during periods of use.
  10. When shopping for a new air-conditioner -- or any other major appliance -- look for the ENERGY STAR label and consult the unit's EnergyGuide for advice on how much money running that particular appliance may cost you.
  11. Set the water heater thermostat to 120 degrees Fahrenheit (or to the energy efficiency setting, if it is a newer model and has one).
  12. Turn off the furnace.
  13. Open refrigerators or freezers only when you need them.
  14. Keep refrigerator coils clean.
  15. Turn off lights -- especially incandescent or halogen lights -- that generate heat.
  16. Replace incandescent bulbs with Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs).
  17. Fix leaky faucets. Ninety drops a minute add up to 212 gallons down the drain a month -- and if it’s draining from the hot water tank, you are paying to heat water that’s being wasted.
  18. Cook outdoors when you can instead of heating up the kitchen.
  19. Use a microwave or toaster oven instead of a larger gas or electric range. They use considerably less energy than a regular oven.
  20. If you must bake, then bake in the early morning when it is cooler.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Safety corner

How to avoid hot-weather problems

Let’s put the energy efficiency tips aside for a moment: we’re entering the summer season. Individuals concerned about lowering their utility bills, or people eager to do a good turn for the environment by increasing the energy efficiency of their homes, should pause and consider just how fortunate we are, during summer heat waves, to have such luxuries as air-conditioning.

This year, the EIA estimates that we will need to use air-conditioning less in the summer of 2009 than last year. This may be for any number of reasons: Climate change, or not. Sun spots (or rather, the lack of sun spots). El Nino, or La Nina.

Whatever, use the A/C when the weather turns nasty, hot and humid.

Senior citizens are at greater risk during heat waves. Also, those with heart and circulatory problems, kidney problems, respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, obesity or fever are at the greatest risk. You need to pay attention to your health, or the health of your loved ones, during hot summer days.

Temperatures just above 90 degrees Fahrenheit can be the most dangerous, especially when humidity is also high. But there are steps that everyone can take to reduce the risk of heat stress. During hot weather, keep cool by considering the following steps:
  • Spending as much time as possible in cooler surroundings. You can spend as much time as possible in a cooler room in your home, an air-conditioned shopping mall, a senior center, public library or movie theater.
  • Using an air-conditioner. This is especially important for people with special medical conditions, such as heart disease.
  • Running a fan to draw cool air into the home at night and provide good indoor air circulation during the day. Air movement reduces heat stress by helping to remove extra body heat. However, remember that when it is extremely hot, a fan may cause a gain in body heat by blowing very hot air over the body.
  • Taking a cool bath or shower, with the water temperature around 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Cool water removes extra body heat 25 times faster than cool air.
  • Wearing as little as possible when at home.
  • Drinking water often. Do not wait until you feel thirsty. However if you or a loved one have a medical condition that may affect water balance, you should check with your doctor for advice on how much water you should drink in hot weather.
  • Slowing down. This is especially important at the start of a heat wave when you body is less prepared for the high temperatures
  • Watching what you eat. Avoid hot foods and heavy meals. They add to your body heat.
  • Avoiding alcohol. Alcohol interferes with your body's fight against heat stress and can put a strain on your heart.
Whatever you, be sure to use that air-conditioning if you have it. And if you do not have air-conditioning, don‘t forget to look for an emergency cooling center.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Press Release: Energy Efficiency Tips

And energy efficiency building energy codes

An outfit called the International Code Council Foundation has put the spotlight on Energy Efficiency today, issuing a press release that focuses on very simple steps for lowering utility bills via energy efficiency.

Some quick reminders from these folks:
  1. You can lower energy bills with little to no money.
  2. Lowering bills is really very easy: simply switch off lights or unplug appliances that you are not using.
  3. A programmable thermostat may cost $80. You can save as much as $180 annually by installing one -- paying back that investment in a year or less.
These people claim to have developed an International Energy Conservation Code -- a building code encouraging energy conservation to benefit the public through efficiency in design, mechanical systems, lighting systems and the use of new materials and techniques.

The US DOE offers an extensive online resource for understanding building energy codes. Check it out at

The full press release appears here:

Friday, May 01, 2009

Light Colors Reduce Heat Gain

Exterior paint and roof color shades can promote energy efficiency, lowering your utility bills.

In summer, we work outdoors and exterior painting is a common summertime chore. If you have the ability to control the color of your home's exterior, consider painting in a lighter color. This is especially true if your region has particularly hot long summers.

If you live in a northern climate with harsh cold winters, then the opposite may prove to be better advice: paint exteriors in darker colors that absorb the sun's warmth and transfer some of that heat to the interior.

Roof shingle or tile colors also can make a big difference. Research suggests choosing the correct color for your roof can save up to 10 percent on energy costs. When it comes time to replace your roof, consult with your roofing contractor about colors and efficiency grades that may be available.

The U.S. government has studied the impact of roof types on energy efficiency.

A great resource for studying the relationship between roofing and energy efficiency and the environment is located on the National Roofing Contractor Association's website.

Where you live frequently determines your choices: In a townhouse, the homeowner's association makes decisions about color and roofing materials. If you live in an association-managed complex, there's no need to despair: The cost savings from choosing the right shade are not as great as other measures that you can take. For instance, it is of much greater importance -- in terms of energy efficiency and lowering utility bills -- that you first make sure your insulation is of the proper thickness or thermal resistance level. For more, check out the ENERGY STAR website on home sealing.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

6 Easy Refrigerator Energy Efficiency Tips

Start lowering utility bills right now!

1. Keep it full. A full refrigerator needs to work less to keep things inside cold. That's because the greater mass of already cold items in the refrigerator helps keep the temperature down.

2. Improve air circulation. Good air circulation around the refrigerator keeps it running cool. Allow about 2 inches of airspace around your refrigerator. Good air circulation will make the compressor work more efficiently, and that will have a significant impact on the unit's overall efficiency -- a 5 degree decrease in the surrounding air temperature can reduce energy usage by 20 percent!

To help reduce the energy consumption of refrigerator models that have exposed coils, periodically brush them so that they remain dust free.

If you don't have a coil cleaning brush, many are available from Amazon:

Refrigerator Coil Brushes

3. Turn off the ice maker. If you can bear using ice trays, you can cut refrigerator electricity use by as much as 14 percent if you don't use the ice maker in your freezer.

4. Set the dial to 40 degrees. If your unit is full and if there is good air circulation around the unit, you can lower the unit to 40 degrees -- okay, 37 degrees if you must. But you don't have to keep it on the coldest setting.

To test inside temperature, place a thermometer in a class of water overnight.

5. Check the door seals. A good seal keeps the cold air inside. Visually inspect the seal for gaps or leaks.

Check out how:

A handyman can replace a broken seal, or you can do it yourself:

6. Close the door! Sounds so simple, but it's also so true. Just ask any 4th Grader!

If you can afford it, buy a new refrigerator. Any unit older than 15 years is probably ready to be retired. Newer units were designed to stricter energy efficiency standards, which means a newer unit will help in lowering utility bills.

Check with your utility to see whether they're offering a rebate on high efficiency models. Or look up the ENERGY STAR website's online appliance rebate locator tool.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Look for the ENERGY STAR Label

Buying a new appliance, furnace or air conditioner? Use this governmental "seal of approval" as your guide to finding high-energy efficiency equipment.

Lowering utility bills while living comfortably is the goal of all consumers.

When buying gasoline, we use the published prices of service stations as our guide for identifying the best deals. We can do the same for electricity and gas purchases, thanks to the U.S. government.

In the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Energy started to look for ways to help consumers identify the estimated electricity or natural gas usage of a particular appliance. They created an EnergyGuide label that estimated how much energy an appliance uses, compared the use of similar products, and listed approximate annual operating costs.

Later, this evolved into a system whereby specific high energy efficiency standards were developed, and appliances that met or exceeded those standards were identified and given a special recognition: The ENERGY STAR designation.

The government now has a dedicated ENERGY STAR website (

ENERGY STAR covers everything from home design to appliances. Here's what the government says about appliance energy usage and cost for the average citizen of the United states:
Did you know that the average home spends about $2,000 on energy bills every year? Change to appliances that have earned the ENERGY STAR, and you can save $75 a year in energy costs, while saving the environment.
In addition, the government has used the website to help you identify rebates from your state or your local utility. This is a simple-to-use web-based appliance rebate locator tool.

I encourage you to use it!

I replaced a clothes washer and dryer, refrigerator and dishwasher, and collected $125 in rebates from electric and water utilities. That's on top of increasing my energy efficiency and lowering my utility bills.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Beaming Solar Power from Outer Space

Why this is a distraction and you'd be better off investing in energy efficiency and reducing your utility bills.

The large electric and gas utility in California, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), has announced it wants the local regulatory agency to approve a deal with a third-party power producer to buy electricity generated from a space-based "solar farm" that would be, in fact, a solar power generation satellite.

The idea is that the contractor would put solar panels in space to generate electricity that would be sent -- via radio waves -- to the the utility's transmission and distribution grid in northern and central California, for use by the utility's customers.

The utility announced that the project would generate enough electricity to meet the needs of 240,000 residential customers. Space-based solar power is expected to be available starting in 2016.

Here's a brief story about it. Here's a more robust article describing the deal in more detail.

Surely, each homeowner in this country could do a much better job than the utility if we take advantage of existing federal and state tax credits and rebates to install solar panels on our rooftops, for exclusive use in our homes?

I assume the estimated cost of launching solar panels into space must be in the several millions of dollars. I assume, also, that the energy-related cost of putting a satellite into space is a big component of the expense -- and so we are looking at making a significant energy investment to install a satellite power station. That does not make sense when more affordable market-tested energy investments are all around us.

Also, the final cost of the electricity being piped into the local grid would be more expensive than the cost of investing in existing technologies that would eliminate inefficient use of power. I have read that the cost to the utility customer of investing in energy efficiency is 2 cents for every kilowatt-hour saved. Today, the average cost of a kilowatt-hour in the United States is 11 cents. PG&E refused to reveal the final cost of the solar-based power -- but surely it will be far more than 2 cents a kilowatt-hour.

Finally, such satellites would probably be vulnerable in times of war, creating an unnecessary level of dependence on a space-based military. By the way, we really don't have a space-based military presence, except in terms of missiles that could shoot down satellites. Solar power stations would require creating a large-scale space-based anti-missile program, another significant investment that seems unnecessary.

This is another PR ploy, designed to get you and me to focus on the utility providing electricity for all of our needs.

This is not the way to true independence. Utility-scale solar-based generation would be great, but only after (1) we've figured out how to build it inexpensively and (2) we've figured out how to store the electricity it generates in a safe and affordable manner for use during those long winter afternoons and evenings.

The best bet is to invest now in your own house and your own independence -- by improving the building's energy efficiency, thereby reducing your dependence on utility-scale generation.

Further, if you can afford to take advantage of current state and local tax credits and rebates for installing your own photovoltaic solar panels, then look into it. A friend of mine is looking into installing a 4-kilowatt rooftop PV system -- for only $1,000 a kilowatt once all credits and rebates have been included. In economic terms, this is considered a very affordable way to use solar power for reducing utility bills.

For more information and for readily available solar power technologies, take a look at this link: Solar Power Resources from Amazon

Here's one book I've just started reading:

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Break from Energy Efficiency:

The Dos and Don’ts of Turning Off Your Gas and/or Electricity in Case of an Emergency

I will take a break today from my main Energy Efficiency and Lowering Utility Bills theme to remind everyone that April marks the anniversary of San Francisco, California’s, great earthquake and fire of 1906.

This make it a good time to mention disaster planning concerning utility services.

As it did in 1906, and as happened the recent tragic events in the Abruzzo region of Italy, severe earthquakes strike without warning.

Even areas not prone to tremors sometimes get them (read about a quake in Alabama).

This means that now is the best time to plan what you would do in the event of a disaster.

Disaster can wear many masks: It can be caused by major storms, fierce winds, fire, or quakes. It may be only a local problem, only endangering your family and neighbors. But whatever the causes, electric and natural gas safety may be a major concern. Sometimes -- but not always -- the emergency may be such that you have to turn off utility services yourself.

What does a meter look like?

The Energy Saver Guy provides a brief demo on YouTube. Take a look.

Now that you know what your meters should look like, here is a basic overview of how you can turn off your electricity and gas in an emergency. However, take a moment after your read this to also visit your local electric and gas companies’ websites for specific local advice about how you should respond to an emergency.

  1. Fuses or circuit breakers are usually located in the metal box near where the main power line enters the house
  2. Fuses or circuit breakers should automatically shut off all electricity, or electricity to one or more branch circuits, in the event of trouble. So you should not have to turn off electricity yourself in case of an emergency.
  3. To restore service, replace the fuse or reset the breaker. However, do NOT try to restore service if there are signs of heat damage to wires or to the fuse box or circuit breaker box!
  4. NOTE: If you smell natural gas near your main electric meter or switch box, do NOT attempt to shut off the electricity! As always, evacuate the area and call your local utility or 9-1-1 from a location away from the gas leak.
  5. If you are uncertain how to restore electric service, contact your local utility for help.

Natural Gas

  1. Do not turn off the gas to your house UNLESS you detect the odor of natural gas, see damaged pipes, or see or hear gas escaping from your pipes.
  2. If you smell, see or hear a gas leak, immediately leave your house or the area near the leak. Do NOT telephone for help from inside the house or anywhere near the leak. Your phone could generate a tiny spark that may ignite the gas and cause serious injury or death.
  3. Do NOT turn light switches or electrical appliances on or off. Do not light matches. Do not ring your door bell. These also can ignite the gas.
  4. Do NOT start your car or open your garage door.
  5. Leave the vicinity of the leak and then telephone 9-1-1 and/or your local utility.
Why all this extra fuss about gas leaks?

Leaking gas pipes were responsible for many of the fires that broke out across San Francisco early that morning of April 18, 1906. The fires ended up killing more people and inflicting greater damage than the earthquake that came before them.

Also, natural gas generally is very safe. However, in the rare event of a gas explosion, the effects can be catastrophic!

You may have to turn off gas at the meter.

If you cannot call 9-1-1 or your local utility for help, then you may have to shut off the gas at the meter.

The main shut off valve is located on the pipe next to the meter. Use a wrench to give it a quarter turn either way.

Once the gas is off it must be left off. Do not attempt to turn on the gas yourself. Only a qualified gas service professional from the local utility can re-establish service.

Do not turn the valve in any direction after shutting off your service.

An Eyewitness Account of the 1906 San Francisco Quake and Fire

Jack London, the American author of Call of the Wild and other exciting stories, lived near San Francisco when the earthquake and fire swept through the city. Here is his published account.

In addition, London took many photos of the ruins.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

How to Caulk the Outside of Your Home and Save Energy

Caulking does two big things: it keeps heated or air-conditioned air inside, and it keeps summer heat and winter cold outdoors.

To help improve energy efficiency and lower utility bills, make sure the outside of your home is sealed against the elements with caulking.

Caulking should be used where windows and doors meet the walls, wherever two different construction materials meet, and wherever to different parts of a house are joined.

Check these possible air leaks on the outside of your home:
  • Between siding and window or door frames
  • Between siding and drip caps, such as those above sliding doors
  • Beneath window sills at the siding
  • Where chimneys and stocks meet the roof
  • At all corners in the siding
  • Between any protrusions and the main part of the house
Caulking compounds may be bought in bulk for use with a full-barrel caulking gun. However, you’ll probably use disposable cartridges for use in a drop-in caulking gun. Caulking come in various materials and grades. Speak to the professionals in your hardware store to determine the right grade of caulking for use outdoors.

Follow the manufacturer’s instructions to be sure you get a continuous bead of caulking to seal all cracks. Use filler material before caulking on all cracks more than 3/8-inch wide.

There are a few important points to remember:
  • Remove all old and crumbling caulking before you attempt to repair or replace
  • The caulking bead must be wide enough to adhere to both sides of the crack you are filling
  • Your fingers, putty knife, and a razor knife or screwdriver are your most valuable caulking tools
Don’t try to do your entire home in a day. Be thorough. Take your time. Clean up as you go: Many caulking materials are difficult to clean once the have had a chance to set up.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Showers: Cutting Back Saves Energy

Short showers cut back on natural gas or electricity, and save water too

When I was a kid, my Uncle Jack--an ex-Navy man--first introduced me to the concept of the Navy shower. It was simple. He'd shout -- in this incredibly loud voice -- "Hey, Butt Brain! Stop wasting water!"

I'd be staying over at his house during summer vacation and in the shower for 15 or 20 minutes. At my home I was used to long, hot showers.

Uncle Jack didn't know it then, but he was talking to me about energy efficiency.

He did know that he was talking to me about lowering his utility bills. In those days, money was still money, and waste was still waste!

A Navy shower is a two-minute shower that cut water usage back enormously. Mainly, it's the hot water that's being cut back.

That can really slash the water-heating portion of your utility bill. One article I read suggests showers represent two-thirds of all water heating costs. The remainder involves dish and clothes washing.

A typical ten minute shower can use up to 60 gallons of water. Almost all of it hot. That's about all the hot water in a typical water heater tank (in my house, we have a 40 gallon water heater).

A so-called Navy shower uses only two gallons of water.

Here's how you do it:
  1. Just turn on the shower, get wet and then turn it off.
  2. Lather up, shampoo the hair, shave, and so on.
  3. Then turn it on and rinse off.
I admit a Navy shower in the summertime is a lot easier when it's warmer. On a cold winter's morning, it can be a serious challenge.

One way around this, is a low flow showerhead.

You can stay in the shower longer and use less water after you install a low-flow shower head. These can be purchased at a fairly reasonable price, they are easy to install, and they can generate a strong enough stream of water to get the soap out of your hair.

If you’re not shy, then shower with a friend. You’ll be doubling up on the amount of hot water you use, and helping to save yourself some money.

Here's a page of shower heads you can by:
Low Flow Showerheads

And just for fun: a shower with a friend tee-shirt, retro-Seventies style:

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Energy Efficiency Window Films

Improve energy efficiency of windows and lower utility bills and household energy use this summer

In writing this blog, my greatest concern is for people who are hit hard by this bad economy. According to some reports, that includes everyone in America.

The Impact of the Bad Economy
The bad economy may not cause you to lose your job. However, you may not get a raise, or you may have your pay or hours cut back. And your income, and mine, are under attack.

Businesses that used to be able to fund their growth by borrowing money with really cheap interest rates have to find another way to fund their growth. Rates, when loans are available, will be much higher. Loans are not going to be so readily available, however, because most businesses have really terrible credit ratings.

There is only one way to get the funds that are needed to keep the lights on and grow a business: increase prices.

We will have less income that can be considered 'disposable.' That means we have less money available to eat out, go to the cinema, go to a concert, get a new cell phone, buy music, take a trip to Disneyland or Vegas or Cancun.

This means we must extract as much value from every dollar we have. We will need to save more. We will need cars with better fuel efficiency. We will need homes that operate more efficiently.

Electricity Prices Will Rise
The economy will cause everything to go up in price: food, gasoline, clothing, rent. And, yes, electricity.

The Energy Information Administration estimates electricity prices will increase an average of 2% this year (2009) and about 1.7% in 2010. Rates will be especially high in summer, when air-conditioning is in use in most homes and, therefore, electricity is in greatest demand.

So we have to start finding a way to reduce electricity consumption. Let's begin with a area that is not too expensive. Let's start with windows.

Weatherize Windows: Energy Efficiency Windows
Start now, while the spring months are still cool to weatherize your home in preparation for the onslaught of the heat waves of the coming summer.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy,

"Windows can be one of your home's most attractive features. Windows provide views, daylighting, ventilation, and solar heating in the winter. Unfortunately, they can also account for 10% to 25% of your heating bill. During the summer, your air conditioner must work harder to cool hot air from sunny windows." (Source: Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy website, a division of the U.S. DOE)

The DOE recommends upgrading your windows to higher efficiency ENERGY STAR rated windows.

What if you happen to be a renter?

Your landlord may be able to upgrade the windows and take advantage of federal and state tax credits. That will depend on your landlord and his ability to fund this improvement, and that may unintentionally lead to an increase in your rent.

You then must look at shadings--curtains, drapes, shades, and window films. This blog focuses on window films.

Block Heat Gain, Let in Daylight
A good inexpensive option may be solar films that you apply directly to the glass of your windows.

Films are thin plastic films that you ally to the inside of the glass. Some films simply reduce the amount of light coming through the window. They reduce heat gain caused by sunlight. Other films also provide insulation. These are often called 'low-e' films. The film has metal included in the dyed material. As a result, they control light and heat.

I prefer the insulated window films. They are more expensive than simply tinting. However, they are also useful during the winter because they prevent the cold air from penetrating through the window glass. You can try to install these yourself. Supplies are available at some hardware stores as well as online. I recommend a Google search for the term: Window Film Tinting.

How Much Will You Really Save?
Some window film dealers' websites claim that customers' household utility bills will be lowered 10% to 25% after installing window shading. This I find hard to believe, unless you are in a house where nearly an entire south- and west-facing walls were made up of windows and sliding glass doors. Even then, it depends on whether you live in a particularly cold or hot climate.

In working in this profession of reporting on using energy conservation to lower utility bills, I know you will save money over time. The cost of electricity will increase. When I started in this business, electricity was less than 6 cents per kilowatt-hour purchased. Now it is nearly 12 cents per kilowatt-hour, and it is expected to double again in the coming decade.

That means we could be looking at 20 cents or more a kilowatt-hour.

So you will see savings, over time. And that is what this blog is about: cutting back on how much energy you need to use, while still living a comfortable life, and paying less for your electric utilities than you would have paid if you hadn't taken these steps.

Other Resources
This video provides a good explanation of why getting windows right matters when it comes to your controlling your utility bills.

These websites may provide some useful information, too:

By the way, I have no affiliation with these sites or their businesses. I am not endorsing them either. These are just additional resources.

Also, check out this site from the government:

And here is another interesting site focused on helping consumers reduce their utility bills through energy efficiency (I like this site):

Friday, April 17, 2009

Why I Write Energy Efficiency and Lowering Utility Bills

More than 20 years ago, I started my career as a professional writer. My first subject was tax law--which I didn’t find interesting. After two years, I was hired by a utility, and my life-long interest in energy and utility industries began.

At the utility, I started out writing an advice column for utility customer service employees. The goal: explain the intricacies of utility billing and rates--and focus on showing employees how to teach customers to save energy and lower their electricity and natural gas bills.

I’ve returned to this theme for two reasons: After more than 20 years, people continue to throw away money on utility bills, and I deplore the waste. Most experts agree the price of electricity and natural gas will continue to climb, taking away what precious little remains of our disposable incomes.

In this bad economy, don’t throw away your money. Save it. According to some, saving money--instead of spending it--can be the most revolutionary act every American can take.

Also, many of us worry about the impact of energy production on the environment (I leave the debate on the true effect of greenhouse gas emissions to others). I worry about the impact on the environment, and I have also seen the skies clear up as a result of changes in how we produce and use electricity, natural gas, gasoline, and firewood (yes, firewood, too).

Someone once said, “Past is prologue.” I say, “It’s deja-vu all over again.” Or to put it in plain English, we’ve been here before and we know what we have to do.

In the 1970s, OPEC hit America with politically contrived oil shortages. The natural gas industry in the United States realized that it had run out of cheap natural gas supplies. Energy prices hit the roof. Consumers cried, “foul!”

But we began also to clean up our act. We started to use alternative energy and questioned whether we couldn’t do more with less.

Americans, being a can-do people, started a quiet revolution. American industry became energy-conscious, with the result that we produce far more from one kilowatt-hour of electricity or cubic foot of natural gas than we did 30, 20, or 10 years ago.

As quoted by Bill Prindle, former Acting Director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, "The U.S. economy uses half as much energy to produce a dollar of output today as we used in the 1970s." (See his 2007 testimony before the U.S. Senate.)

We can continue this remarkable achievement by using what we always use when pushed to extremes: innovation and common sense. Efficient technology and efficient thinking will increase our independence, help clean up our skies, and leave us more money in our pockets and savings accounts--where our money belongs.

That is why as a professional writer I have come back to this theme.

And why I encourage everyone to turn off the lights when the lights are no longer needed.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Four Free Ways to Start Your Utility Diet

Reducing utility bills is just like other forms of "reducing."

You can start your energy conservation program, without having to invest a single dollar. Here are four easy--and free--money saving tips:

1. Review electric and gas bills for the last 12 months.
Start with a review of your bills and set goals for how much you want to save. It's like dieting--you need to check in first to see how much you are spending. Check you utility's online service to see if you can access your bills via the Internet. Review your usage and fees. Then set goals for reducing your costs. Start with something reasonable: cut your use by 5% over the same time last year.

2. Turn of lights, appliances, televisions, computers, and so on whenever you leave the room. Like dieting, you just need to consume less. Start by turning off the PC at night, switching off your lights and television when you really aren't using them.

3. Avoid using heaters and furnaces. Feeling chilly? Try a sweater first, or sweats, before turning on a heater. Wrap up in a cozy blanket.

4. Get a free home energy audit. Your utility may have an online audit. If it doesn't, or if it seems to be too cumbersome, remember the US government has a Home Energy Audit tool online that you can use. And it is free for anyone to use.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Solar Power: Is Big Really Better?

An opinion that suggests utility-scale solar projects may be the wrong way to go.

Spenser Michaels' NewsHour story today about the solar energy industry had me thinking of that old saw about "deja vu all over again."

Michaels investigated whether solar is viable in this economy. Today, solar provides less than 1% of electricity in the USA. In spite of best efforts of many individuals, groups, and governments, the global credit crisis has put a drag on any new development of solar. Solar start-ups are unable to obtain funding to develop their technologies, bring their technologies to market, or expand proven technologies.

A handful of firms, such as BrightSource Energy, have secured important contracts with large utility end-users. See the New York Times story. A few determined companies will be able to grow in this difficult market.

But if the NewsHour reporter dug back far enough into the BrightSource Energy/SCE story he might have found out that SCE and BrightSource, which I think was named Luz International some 15 to 20 years ago, announced the same idea way back when--only to have Luz go bankrupt in the early 1990s after building some 300 MWs of solar generation in the Mojave Desert.

The reasons for the bankruptcy included changes in tax codes. In the 1980s, tax incentives were available for alternative energy developers. Similar tax incentives are being offered today. History tells us these incentives will disappear.

Also, the cost of solar when compared to other forms of energy generation was high--and regulators prevented utilities from passing on the costs to ratepayers. Regulators, who today support paying for higher cost renewable energy resources, may turn on utilities and forbid them to pass the costs along to consumers again.

But could it be that the real problem is that we're looking at this the wrong way? Are large scale solar projects the problem? They depend on huge amounts of capital, which is hard to get these days. They depend on the promise of large utilities to buy the power, which is difficult to do when you already have much cheaper and reliable electricity supplies available, and when regulators are liable to turn on you.

What about distributed power generation instead? A small solar plant on your roof top, with the power going into your home can be partially funded with tax credits. Technology is getting a little cheaper, so you might be able to install solar without going to the bank. And you keep the utility and speculators out of the equation, which recent history has proven--again--is much less expensive for ratepayers and society as a whole.

Just a thought. If you agree, check out these books: