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Reducing Your Electrical Bill

Last updated 2009.11.23

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General | Lighting | Air Conditioning | Refrigerator | Hot Water | Dishwasher | Electric Heating | Other Heating
Clothes Dryer | Clothes Iron | Stove | Kettle | Computer | Timing | Photovoltaics | Miscellaneous


By popular demand, we have gathered together our various energy conservation tips for reducing electrical power consumption here in one place. Recent hikes in electrical bills in Ontario have many consumers scrambling for ways to lower their electrical bill. The hottest summer on record led to record high levels of electrical consumption in the summer of 2005 in Ontario. Combined with several power plants being off-line for maintenance and deregulation of pricing, increased demand and reduced supply led to higher prices for power for local utilities, especially on weekday afternoons, and since partial deregulation, those higher prices were partially passed on to consumers. This has created the price signal to consumers that they can lower their expenses by reducing the amount of electrical power they buy. Another price increase (15%) was announced in April 2006, to take effect May 1, 2006. The rest of the cost will show up on our tax bills, as taxpayers will subsidize electricity ratepayers with the gift of cheap electricity.


2009.03.26 - Ontario’s Finance Minister, Dwight Duncan, announced that effective July 1, 2010 electricity, natural gas and home heating oil will be subject to the 8% provincial sales tax. Is it finally time to figure out how to reduce your consumption of electricity and heating fuel?

Please note: for purposes of illustration, some calculations are presented on this page.. Of necessity, these calculations are based on assumptions and are approximations, and may not match your specific situation. As they say, your mileage may vary. If you wish more precise calculations or advice for your specific situation, please e-mail us.

If you have additional tips, send them along, and we will share them here.


General

Turn it off

The easiest, cheapest and fastest way to save money on your electrical bill is still energy conservation. The biggest area for electrical savings for most Canadians is still the off-switch. Turn off lights, appliances and equipment when they are not required.

Ghostbusters

Many devices consume power even when they are "off". These are known as "phantom loads". For example, most televisions consume power to support their "instant-on" features. The only way to stop these devices from consuming power completely is to isolate them completely from the wall socket, either by unplugging them or using a discrete isolation switch, as may be found on power-bars, surge-protectors or purpose built switches. If that has not spooked you, consider this: Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (U.S.) says electrical appliances that were switched "off" consumed over 71 terawatt-hours in the U.S. in 1999. That's 71,000,000,000,000 Watt-hours - to power appliances that are "off". Enough power to light 4 15-watt compact fluorescent lamps for 4 hours a day for more than 810,000,000 homes for a year. Still too big to comprehend? It's about twice the power that the entire Pickering power generation complex could produce if it could run all eight of its reactors full-out for a year. Their listing of devices that draw less than one watt of power in stand-by mode.

Constant-operation battery chargers (also known as "wall-warts", those little black boxes that plug into the outlet and then feed out a wire to the device, often with a spear connector) are another type of phantom load. One novel solution to this electrical load is solar chargers that will charge the batteries daily, without using any electricity from the power grid.

Shopping

When it is time to replace an appliance, shop for the one that uses less electricity. For example, smaller refrigerators usually use less power than larger ones. However, insulation and design make a difference, so look for the EnerGuide or Energy Star) label to get a common benchmark for comparison across models. For smaller appliances without EnerGuide labels, check the plate or power supply label for power ratings (in watts or amps - lower is better). For hyper-efficient devices, look at what people who live off-grid use for appliances.

Lighting

Switch to energy-efficient lighting

The conventional incandescent light bulb is horribly inefficient when it comes to producing light. It produces more than 3 times as much heat as light from the power it consumes. Fluorescent lighting, including compact fluorescent (CF) lights, consume about 25% of the power of incandescent bulbs to produce the same amount of light. And fluorescent lights last longer. Compact fluorescent lights will usually fit right into your existing incandescent light fixtures without modifications. In some cases, CFs will not fit into existing shades or light covers. Switching to fluorescent lights will save you money in two ways. They will outlast incandescent bulbs, reducing purchase price and maintenance effort over their lifetime, as well as reducing your electrical consumption by about 75%. The variety of CF lighting continues to expand. There are now flood and spot-light packages, and more types rated for outdoor use. Warmer colours are also improving the appearance of fluorescent light in the home environment.

A more recent, and currently more expensive, contender for even more efficient lighting is LED (Light-Emitting Diode) lighting. Research into better "white" LEDs continues, but expect to see more of these in the future. Life is expected to be in the 100,000's of hours. LED lighting tends to be very directional.

Natural Lighting

It's free! Arrange furniture to take advantage of natural lighting. During the cooling season, you may wish to keep windows more covered to reduce solar gain (heating from the sun).

Decorative Lighting

Cut back. Put up fewer lights. Use decorations that are more visible in existing light. Look for the new LED based decorative lights - they consume a lot less power than the traditional incandescent bulbs.

Sensors and Timers

Put motion sensors, daylight sensors (photosensors) or timers on outdoor lights to reduce the amount of time they are on. Daylight sensors are also available for some night-lights. Consider the case where there is a 100-watt light left on all the time to provide outdoor lighting. In a year, it will consume 57.6 kWh. Suppose we replace this with a 25-watt compact fluorescent with a photocell sensor. On average, this light will now be on less than 12 hours a day, but whenever it is needed to provide lighting. Assuming it is on 12 hours a day average over the year, this light will consume just 1/8 the power of its predecessor (7.2 kWh), while providing the same amount of light during dark hours. That's a saving of 50.4 kWh. If electricity costs $0.15 a kWh, that's $7.56 per lamp per year. If the incandescent bulbs last an average of 1,000 hours each (optimistic in my experience), that is 5 bulbs saved, likely worth more than $5.00 in the year, plus the effort to change the bulb 5 times. Let's round that down to a $12 / year annual saving. The costs are about $5 initially for the photocell adapter socket, and a replacement fluorescent bulb approximately every two years at a cost of about $7 (still falling). Payback period? 7 months. After that you are saving money forever. Another advantage for photocell sensors is that they will turn off lighting when power is more expensive on summer afternoons, when there is already lots of light available.

More Switches

If you have a lot of lights on a single switch, e.g. basements, so that larger areas are lit than necessary, then install switches at some of the fixtures so that they can be controlled individually, reducing the number of lights that are on. Always make sure to consult a qualified electrician before making any electrical changes or wiring installation in your home.

Air Conditioning

Air conditioning is probably the biggest single load faced by the electrical grid on hot, summer afternoons. They create the largest peak demand for electricity in North America, resulting in the highest prices for electricity. The more you can reduce your demand for electricity on hot summer days, the lower our overall bills for electricity will be. There are things you can do.

Reduce solar gain

During the cooling season, the biggest source of heat in most residential buildings is solar gain. The best way to combat this is to stop the sunlight from reaching your windows. Sunlight that does not reach your windows cannot be converted to infra-red that will heat up your house. Use awnings, shutters, roof overhangs, trees and other coverings to shade your windows. This is far more effective than using indoor window coverings which allow the heat to enter your home, but try to trap it against the window. If you cannot block sunlight outside the sun-facing windows, try to use reflective window treatments on the inside so that at least some of the heat energy is sent back out through the glass rather than being absorbed in your home.

Suppose the average home has 8 square meters of sun-facing windows (undoubtedly a low figure) with no shade or outside covering. Allowing for the angle of incidence and some ground reflection, let us assume that this is effectively 6 square meters for direct solar insolation. Let us further assume that the double-pane glass typical of most Canadian buildings converts only 50% of that energy into heat as it passes through the glass. That's still 3 kW of heat! (8 sq. meters x 1 kW/sq. meter insolation energy x 75% incidence/reflection allowance x 50% conversion factor) Suppose you get the equivalent of 7 full-sun hours on a sunny summer day. That's 21 kWh of heat coming in through your windows. Put another way, it's like taking two of those 1500-watt portable electric heaters, and turning them on in your house for 7 hours on a day that is already hot.

So now, you need your air conditioner to counteract that heating effect. Assuming a CoP (Coefficient of Performance) rating of 2.0 (typical of a window unit or low-end or older central unit), then 10.5 kWh of electricity will be needed to get this performance from your air conditioner. At approximately Cdn$0.10 per kWh, that's just over a dollar a day. However, consider that this electricity will be required at the absolute peak demand time, when everyone else's air conditioners are also running. During the summer of 2002, electricity was selling for as much as Cdn$4.71 per kWh on the spot market at peak demand time. If you had to buy your 10.5 kWh at that price, the cost to you would be Cdn$49.46 per hot summer day. Now would you be prepared to think about shading your windows to avoid that sort of expense? At that price, the cost of awnings for the entire sun-facing side of your home would probably be recovered in a single summer. However, even at the capped price of approximately Cdn$0.10 per kWh until 2006, some sort of summer shading for sun-facing windows is still probably a worthwhile investment. Assuming 10.5 kWh per sunny day to be saved, and up to 60 such days per year, and interest rates at 5%, you have a budget of about $400 to work with to break even. Remember, the key is to stop the sunlight from reaching the window glass in order to achieve the maximum benefit.

If you think installing photovoltaic (solar) panels to produce the electricity is the solution, consider these numbers. To overcome the solar gain effect, you need to produce 1.5 kW of power - 1500 watts - while the sun is shining. Assuming an installed cost of Cdn$15.00 per peak watt for solar panels (Cdn$7.50 per peak watt for the panels and an equivalent amount for mounting hardware, wiring, interconnection equipment, labour etc), that comes to Cdn$22,500.00. At the capped price of electricity until 2006, 60 hot summer days per year and a requirement of 10.5 kWh per day for air conditioning to overcome the solar gain heating, it would take 375 years for these solar panels to pay off - and they only last about 25 years. Looking at it another way, the $22,500 investment will save you about $1,500 over their lifespan - a net loss of $21,000.

Use natural ventilation and cooling

During cooling season, when temperatures are cooler (e.g. at night), open windows to cool your building with cooler air, and give your air conditioner a break. If the air is still, use fans to move the air. Where practical, draw in cooler air down low, and exhaust warmer air from a higher opening (e.g. an attic exhaust fan), to take advantage of convection effect. Take care not to sacrifice your security by leaving unsecured basement and ground-floor windows open when you are asleep.

If you have a basement, it is probably cooler than upper floors. The ground around your basement and below the frost line will typically stay close to 12 degrees C year-round. Take advantage of that natural coolness when it is practical.

Use Fans

Use ceiling fans, oscillating fans, whole house exhaust fans or other air-movers instead of air conditioning where practical. Fans use much less power for similar perceived cooling effects than air conditioners.

Thermostats and Timers

Use a programmable thermostat to control operation of central air conditioning, or a timer for window units. It is not necessary to keep your house as cool when no one is home, and it will use less power. If you have a regular schedule, let the building warm up when it is unoccupied, and set the timer or programming to resume the desired temperature about 30 minutes before you will arrive. If you are going to be away for a few days, shut air conditioners off. Set the thermostat to the highest setting you find comfortable, and dress for the season.

Reduce Unnecessary Heat

Switch to energy efficient lighting (see lighting section above). Efficient lights produce less waste heat.

Cook less. Serve cold meals on occasion, or use the barbecue. Use the microwave instead of the oven or stove where possible.

Geothermal Cooling

If you will be installing central air conditioning in new construction anyway, e.g. using a dual-purpose heat pump, consider the use of a geothermal or ground-loop coupled system. The ground is typically much cooler (about 12-14 degrees C) than outside air when air conditioning is required. Using this source of "coolth" means your air conditioner will not have to work as hard cooling your building on hot days.

Solar Chillers

If you have a large facility to cool on hot sunny days, consider if a solar-power absorption chiller might be an effective alternative.

Refrigerator

Pull it out from the wall and clean (vacuum) the coils at the back. Fridges are a major electrical power consumer in most of our homes. The accumulated dust on the coils acts as insulation, inhibiting the heat exchange, making the compressor work harder and draw more power. Keep the fridge fairly full to minimize air space. Use bottles of water if necessary to reduce air space. Keep the fridge door closed as much as possible. Make sure the temperature control is set to the correct temperature (many are set too cold, which consumes more power). If you have a second fridge (beer fridge), see if you can compress all the items you refrigerate into one fridge, and unplug the second one to save power. If you do unplug a fridge, make sure the door is propped open a couple of inches to allow air movement and reduce mold buildup. (Much of this information also applies to stand-alone freezers.)

Hot Water

Clearly, the following apply primarily if you have an electric hot water heater. However, even if you don't, these tips will help you reduce your energy bill whichever fuel you use to heat water.

Use Less

There are several ways to reduce your hot water consumption.

Switch to cold water for all your laundry. There are detergents that will work well on all clothes in cold water, including whites.

Wash your hands in cold water. You move a lot of hot water into the hot water pipes just to get a couple of seconds worth at the sink. How long do you wait for hot water to arrive? 10, 20, 30 seconds? Well, hot water is leaving the hot water tank the whole time you are waiting. And cold water is replacing that water in the tank, which you will pay to heat. Are you using 30 seconds worth of hot water from the tank to get 5 seconds worth for your hands? Saves time too.

Install water-saver shower-heads and aerator faucets on your taps. They really do reduce the amount of water you use. For the shower, look for the type with the sliding shut-off. This allows you to shut-off the flow completely while lathering up, without affecting the temperature of the water when you re-start it.

Insulate the hot water tank

Most hot water tanks have some insulation built into them, but it is almost never enough, because it makes the units bulkier and more expensive. Most hot water tanks are installed in the coldest part of the house, in the basement, near a cold, concrete, exterior wall. Put an extra layer of insulation around the water heater to reduce heat loss. Insulating jacket kits are available at most hardware stores. Put more on top of the heater, and between the heater and the nearest wall to maximize results. Keeping the heat in the hot water tank will help keep the air around it cooler, which may help with that air conditioning bill as well.

Insulate the hot water pipes

This is of most benefit if there are short periods between hot water uses, e.g. people showering after each other. The insulation helps the water in the pipes stay warmer, longer.

Set the temperature lower

Most hot water heaters have a thermostat. Set the temperature as low as you find comfortable. This reduces the amount of energy used to raise the water temperature and maintain the desired temperature. If you use a dishwasher, this may have to be higher than you would choose otherwise.

Solar Heating

Investigate the potential for solar water heating. These systems have made some in-roads for pool heating in the Ontario, but are still very rare as pre-heaters for domestic hot water. Solar hot water systems are typically significant investments, but they can pay for themselves in some situations.

Dishwasher

Don't run the dishwasher until you have a full load. Reducing the number of loads is the easiest way to reduce the amount of power used.

Don't use the hot-dry cycle - let the dishes dry at room temperature. The hot-dry cycle uses the electric heating element.

Use the most economical setting that will do the job. Many dishwashers come with heavy-duty and normal settings, and some with rinse or economy settings. Use the one that uses the least power (typically shortest operating time) but still gets your dishes clean. Letting dishes soak in a dish tub for a few hours before putting them in the dishwasher may let you use a lower-power setting.

Electric Heating

Whether it is a forced-air, central electric furnace, baseboard heaters or those small portable resistance (wound-wire) or radiant heaters, there's just one solution. Use less heat. There are ways to maintain comfort while reducing heat energy consumption.

Weather-sealing and Insulation

Look for drafts, and seal them off. Use expanding foam, foam strips, wall outlet and switch gaskets, plastic sheeting, door sweeps, knob covers, weighted fabric rolls at the bottom of doors, etc. Use the thin foam strips to help seal gaps around doors. Use storm windows and the clear plastic coverings for windows to provide additional insulation. Is there enough insulation in your attic? Use up to R-40 in ceilings in most of Ontario (conventional standard), if there is room. That's about 30 cm (12 inches) of fiberglass insulation. R-60 is considered super-insulated by most. R-60 will reduce heat requirements further than R-40, but the payback period will be longer. Make sure you do not block soffit openings in the eaves or roof vents. The advantage electric heat has is that it does not produce carbon monoxide from combustion, so the tighter you can make your house, the better. If you find condensation on windows, then focus on better insulation for the windows (e.g. the plastic covering products) or improving airflow over the windows.

Slippers, Socks and Sweaters

The warmer you are, the cooler your house can be. The cooler your house, the less heat energy it takes to maintain the temperature. Warmer air rises, and in most buildings the air near the floor is colder than the air near the ceiling. So, warmer socks and slippers will accomplish a lot to make us feel warmer. Our rule of thumb - if your fingers are cold, the room is too cold. Otherwise, put on warmer socks, slippers or a sweater. We also use lap quilts for when we are awake, but inactive for extended periods of time. Use an extra blanket at night, if this allows you to lower the temperature in the room or the rest of the house.

Thermostat

Set the temperature as low as you find comfortable. The lower the temperature, the less energy it takes to maintain that temperature.

If you have a central, forced-air heating system, get a programmable, set-back thermostat. Set it to lower temperatures when everyone is asleep, or everyone is out of the house. If you have a regular schedule, and can set the temperature down both at night and during much of the day, you could see savings of up to 30% on your heating bill compared to no setbacks at all. Program the thermostat to return to desired heat level about 30 minutes before people get up or return to the house.

Use Free Heat

When the sun is shining, make use of it. Open the window covering, and let the sun stream in. Make sure your windows are clean in the fall, to make the most of this heat source.

When cooking, use the range-hood exhaust as little as possible so that the heat being produced is not being sucked out of your house. If the kitchen gets too warm, use a fan to move the heat into other parts of the house, including the furnace fan if necessary.

When you have boiled water to cook pasta or vegetables, etc., drain the water into another container (e.g. a large, emptied juice can), and let the hot water sit there until it cools to room temperature, extracting all the heat you can from it.

When taking a shower in a bathtub, put the stopper in the drain. Let the hot water stand in the tub until it cools to room temperature, to extract the heat from it. Then drain the water. Similarly, when taking a bath, let the water stand until cool. Note: these heat-saver steps will likely lead to soap-rings around the bathtub, which may require some extra cleaning effort later.

Use bathroom exhaust vents as little as possible. Their primary function is to remove humid air when you are showering. In winter, you may be able to use that humidity in your house, as well as the heat from the warmed, moist air. Try leaving the bathroom door open a bit when showering to let the humidity escape to the rest of the house. If your exhaust fan is wired to the bathroom light switch, it is throwing heat out of your home whenever the light is on, not just when there is excess humidity. Look into installing another switch to control the exhaust fan separately and keep that heat in.

Solar Heating Retrofits

Investigate the potential for a solarium or active solar heating system. These are major investments, but they can pay for themselves over time in some situations.

Closed Door Policy

If you have rooms you do not use, close the doors to them, and reduce the heat to them. If you have a central, forced-air system, close the registers to these rooms. If you can choose which rooms to close off, close off north rooms rather than south rooms. If you have baseboard heaters, set the temperature in these rooms to about 5 degrees C (45 F). Keep outdoor doors closed as much as possible. Use air-lock systems where possible (vestibules with inner and outer doors).

Other Heating

Even if you don't heat with electricity, your furnace fan is probably electric. A typical furnace blower fan uses about 700 watts when running. Some use more. The less time your furnace fan is running, the less electricity it consumes. So insulating and weather sealing your house and lowering the thermostat will save electricity as well as whatever heating fuel you are using.

Clothes Dryer

An electric clothes dryer consumes a lot of power when it is running, typically more than 4 kilowatts. If you use an electric clothes dryer, you can hang your clothes to dry instead, either outdoors, or indoors when weather is a factor or zoning rules prohibit hanging clothes outside. Retractable clotheslines are available so that the space used for hanging clothes can be used for other purposes at other times. Even if you have a gas dryer, the motor that turns the drum uses electricity.

When you do use your clothes dryer, make sure you have full loads. Avoiding an extra cycle is the easiest way to reduce the amount of electricity used.

Empty the lint trap before every load. This reduces the amount of work the blower has to do to move the moisture out of the clothes.

When shopping for a clothes dryer, look for a "smart" unit that senses when the clothes are dry, rather than relying on a timer.

If you choose to use your electric clothes dryer, you can vent the heat from it into your house during the heating season to get the most benefit from the power you are paying for. N.B. If you use a natural-gas clothes dryer, do not vent it indoors under any circumstances - there is a significant carbon monoxide hazard.

Set the dryer to stop before clothes are completely dry. Remove permanent press items while still slightly damp, and hang them or fold them. In many cases, this eliminates the need for ironing.

Make sure there is a damper door on the outside of your dryer vent so that cold air is blocked from blowing in then the dryer is not venting to the outdoors.

Clothes Iron

Only plug it in when you need it. When it is on, do your ironing in a concentrated session, then unplug the iron.

Stove

If you have an electric stove, look for other options for heating food when feasible. For example, an electric kettle uses less electricity to boil water than a stove-top kettle. A microwave generally uses much less electricity to heat food than a stove-top burner or oven. A toaster-oven uses less power to heat small quantities of food than a conventional oven.

When you are cooking on a stove top burner, cover pots and pans as much as possible to keep the heat in, rather than heating the kitchen.

Let food defrost on the counter for a few hours, rather than cooking from frozen, to reduce energy consumption.

When using the oven, resist the temptation to open the door and peek in on the food as much as possible to help keep heat in.

Most ovens have a heat exhaust that comes up under one of the rear burners. Make use of that heat when possible, e.g. to warm water for cooking of vegetables.

Keep the "bowls" under your burners clean, so they will reflect heat back to the pot. Better still, use the reflective aluminum liners, and keep these clean or replace them when they are dirty or dulled from age.

Kettle

An electric kettle uses less power to boil water than a stove-top kettle. This is because the heating element is in direct contact with the water in the electric kettle. With the stove top kettle, only about 30% of the heating element is in contact with the bottom of the kettle, leaving the rest of the element to heat the stove top and surrounding air.

Boil only as much water as you need at a time. Heating more wastes power.

Makers of "boiling" hot water dispensers claim their devices use less power than even microwaves or electric kettles for providing boiling water. (The water actually comes out at about 88 degrees C for safety reasons.) I expect this is true where a significant number of cups of water are being served, as the dispenser delivers precisely the amount of water desired, so no extra water is being heated.

Computer

The largest power consumer on your computer is likely the monitor. Shut it off when not in use. This is not the same as the screen saver, which may just generate a dark image, but not actually save any power. If your monitor has a time-out power-saver feature, enable it. If it has an adjustable time setting, set it to the shortest time that works for you, perhaps 2 minutes. Another big power consumer could be your printer. Shut it off when not in use, even for short periods. When shopping for printers, look for those with power-saver modes, or auto-shut off based on timers.

Timing

Some of the hike in recent Ontario electrical bills results from summertime demand for electricity at peak periods. Peak demand power is more expensive, and the price the utilities paid for it can now be passed along to the consumer (now rescinded per Premier Eves' announcement on Nov. 11, 2002). If you can time your major loads for off-peak times, this will reduce the peak prices your utility has to pay for peak-demand (expensive) power. For example, run your dishwasher or electric clothes dryer after 7 p.m., when demand for electricity is lower. After 8 p.m. is even better. The lowest demand period during the day is typically from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. This will be even more attractive for those that qualify for time-of-use pricing (referred to as interval pricing in provincial documents).

Solar (Photovoltaic) Panels

Photovoltaics produce direct current (DC) electricity from light, usually sunlight. They are the "photo-op" (pardon the pun) alternate energy source of choice for those looking to make a statement, when cost is not an object. Photovoltaic panels are still too expensive to compete with commercial power for those of us already connected to the grid. The key to making most alternate energy sources (including photovoltaics) effective in any application is to focus on reducing the amount of power you will need to produce. I am not against the use of photovoltaics (having some myself), however, in my opinion, they should not be the first power source to be considered for residential or commercial power supply. There are often better choices available, economically and environmentally.

There are several factors to consider before plunging into photovoltaics. First, do you have good solar potential in your location? Is your proposed installation south-facing? Does it have unimpeded access to sunlight during all daylight hours? Does the site get a lot of sunlight, or is cloud cover, fog, haze or smog a regular feature of the local climate (as is the case for most urban Ontario locations)? Will you continue to receive an effective amount of sunlight as global climate change continues to create more sun-blocking gases and clouds in the atmosphere?

The next major consideration is whether or not the location is connected to the electric grid or not. Most Ontario residents have a connection to the electrical power grid. If you will be grid connected, there are additional costs relative to the connection, but you will not need on-site energy storage (e.g. a battery bank). If you are off-grid, you need to produce all your own power. If you are grid-connected, you have the option of producing only a fraction of your own power, and if production and demand don't match up, well that becomes a problem for the grid managers.

What do you hope to accomplish with the photovoltaic panels? What will the power be used for?

Running an air conditioner? Look first into the potential for reducing solar gain, improving insulation, increasing thermal mass and looking at geothermal potential or even solar-powered absorption chillers for cooling before deciding to install a photovoltaic-powered air-conditioning system.

Running an electric clothes dryer? If the sun is shining, you might be better off installing a clothes line or clothes tree and hanging the clothes to dry.

Lighting? If the sun is shining (to provide the photovoltaic electricity), could natural sunlight provide the desired lighting? If not, switching to high-efficiency lighting will be more cost effective than installing additional photovoltaic panels. For example, suppose you wish to provide lighting in a basement 12 hours per day, currently lighted by two 100-watt incandescent lights. 2 lights x 100 watts x 12 hours means a daily power consumption of 2400 watt-hours. Allowing for cloudy days and the fact that we get less than 3 full-sun equivalent hours on a good day in the winter in most of Ontario, let's presume we need to produce just 800 watts of power during daylight hours to provide a reliable 2400 watt-hours of electricity on a daily basis (optimistic). At current prices (approximately Cdn$7.50 per peak watt of PV capacity), this comes to Cdn$6,000. And that doesn't include any costs for installation, grid connections or batteries for local energy storage. And the PV panels will likely have to be replaced in 20 to 25 years. Still want to install those solar panels? Let's consider some other options. Instead, let's replace the incandescent lights with compact fluorescent lights (CFs) . 23-watt CFs will produce slightly more light than the 100-watt incandescents. These lights cost about Cdn$15 each, for a total of Cdn$30. The lamps will likely last about 10,000 hours, or about 2 years in this application. 20 years worth will cost Cdn$300. If incandescent bulbs had been used, which lasted over 1,000 hours each and cost Cdn$1.00 each, they would have cost Cdn$160 (4 bulbs per year per socket x 2 sockets x 20 years x $1/bulb). Now we need just 552 watt-hours per day to produce an equivalent amount of light. (23 watts/lamp x 2 lamps x 12 hours/day) At Cdn$7.50 per peak watt, and still assuming 3 full sun-equivalent hours per day, this comes to Cdn$1,380 worth of PVs, plus the $140 premium for the CFs over the incandescents for a total of Cdn$1,520, a savings of Cdn$4,480 relative to lighting the incandescents using photovoltaics.

Looking at it another way, would you rather spend $4,620 to light incandescent bulbs with extra PVs, or $140 (worst case) on CFs so all that electrical power is not required? By the way, if you purchased the 23-watt CFs for Cdn$10 each, they would have cost the same as the incandescent bulbs they replaced, so they are effectively free. The CFs continue to drop in price, so you should be able to find them for less than Cdn$10 now.

Assuming (optimistically) a PV panel can be installed for Cdn$15 per peak watt (because the panels are typically about half - or less - of the cost of an installed system) and will last 20 years, and produce rated power for an average of 2 hours a day (allowing for less than perfectly sunny days and lower-light periods in the morning and evening). The cost per kWh comes out to Cdn$1.27 ($15 per peak watt x 1,000 watt-hours/kWh divided by (2 hours/day x 365 days/year x 20 years = 14,600 hours) ). That's about 12 times the price we will be paying for electricity in Ontario until 2006 based on recent government statements. Still think it makes sense to invest in PV panels in the next 3-4 years? Given that the provincial government incentive (still only a proposal as of January 2003) is likely to be limited to a refund of the 8% PST on the solar panels and systems, you should really think through the economics of this decision before laying down your cash. (Based on the example above, the cost of a kWh will drop from $1.27 to $1.22 with this incentive.) I know conservation (like upgrading insulation and weather sealing) and installing compact fluorescent lighting is not nearly as dramatic as installing solar (PV) panels, but it makes a lot more financial sense.

In the spring of 2006, Ontario announced Standard Offer Contracts for small producers that will provide a significant incentive for power produced from PV (not an incentive for installation), almost enough to make it worthwhile. However, the wording of the contracts is not expected to be available until the autumn of 2006, so hold onto your wallets until the details are finalized (e.g., installations completed before the contracts are available may well not qualify). Besides, the GST may have dropped from 7% to 6% by then – hey, 1% on a $40,000 installation is still $400 in your pocket.

The fact is that most of Ontario is not a great candidate for PV panels. Take a look at the Ruppert & Patashnick Solar Insolation map. (Insolation is the term for energy from sunlight.) The map shows that all of Ontario gets less than 3 kWh/sq. meter of effective sun on average per day. Some parts get less than 1. Toronto and southern Ontario get about 2. Ottawa and northern Ontario do better, at about 2.4 kWh/sq. meter per day. And that doesn't even consider smog and haze effects in urban areas that would diminish these figures further. Compare this to places like Nevada that get 7 kWh/sq. meter a day of solar insolation on average.

However, if you are contemplating new construction some distance from existing power lines, you may want to take another look at off-grid power options, such as solar, wind and backup generators, rather than paying for the connection cost plus the higher on-going prices for electricity we should probably be expecting in the future (whether we pay them directly or through our taxes). Give serious thought to use of wind power or low-head hydro if these are feasible in preference to photovoltaics. Average global windspeeds are likely to increase over the next 20-50 years as a result of global climate change, while sunlight reaching the planet surface will diminish. Wind is a better resource for Ontario. Look at this map provided by Ontario Hydro. It shows that much of the urbanized areas of Ontario enjoy average windspeeds over 15 km/h, undoubtedly due to the proximity of the Great Lakes. That's sufficient energy to make wind energy economical. Unfortunately, wind turbines don't fit well in a typical urban residential property, but tend to want a bit more space (to allow for potential damage from a fallen tower or shed blade, however unlikely that is). However, if you have the appropriate property, wind power is likely worthy of consideration for producing your own power.

Miscellaneous

Windup clocks use no electricity.

Use hand-powered devices like whisks, knives, can-openers, choppers rather than electric appliances like blenders, food processors, mixers, can-openers, especially for small quantities.

For cold-weather car starting, a battery blanket uses less power than a block heater. If you are going to use a block heater anyway, use a timer so that it is drawing power for only an hour or two before you need to start the vehicle, instead of all night. Note that the Toyota Prius hybrid has enough battery capacity that it does not require a battery warmer or block heater to ensure starts on cold days. It also provides instant heat courtesy of ceramic electric heaters, so it does not need to wait for the engine to warm up to provide heat for defrosting or warming the cabin.

If you are prepared to consider a more proactive approach, please contact us. Sorry, but beyond a preliminary consultation, this will not be a free service. Devising unique and effective solutions is a time-consuming undertaking (on our part). We are not a utility, power generator or broker - all we can sell you is our expertise. Please be prepared to provide the following information: the amount of your electrical bill for the past year; total power consumption in kWh, preferably by billing period (may be on your current bill); your supplier; your major power consumers; whether you are charged on an interval basis; any discounts in effect for you.


More Links

Hydro UK on saving electricity
Alabama Power’s residential electricity saving tips
A consumer walks the talk – solar panels and conservation
No-cost and low-cost ways to reduce electrical consumption
The Change Blog on reducing your electricity bill
Tucson Electric Power on residential Time-of-Use pricing (“PowerShift”)
Katherine Salant on Digital Power Meters
GreenTerraFirma.com water saving tips
Ontario Tenants Association water saving for apartments
Blue Line Innovations PowerCost Monitor
Impact on electrical bills of installing ground-source heat pumps at the Oil Drum
and finally, a shot at the “Clean Coal” myth.

If your objective is improving the environment as well as reducing your electrical bill, the ONLY zero-environment-impact path is to use less (conservation and efficiency measures). There are NO means of generating electricity that don’t have some negative environmental impact. Moving to sustainable (“alternative”) sources may reduce the impact dramatically, but it won’t go to zero.

Wind turbines have had an impact on some bird populations, although this is usually massively overstated by opponents. Objective reviews put this risk into perspective. Cats, skyscrapers, cars, trucks, aircraft and many other things kill many more birds than do wind turbines.

Large hydro can be badly done, such as this project in China.

Photovoltaic panel production is often based on use of toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases. Here's one article on the subject.

If you want to learn more about how to reduce your energy consumption (and energy bills), check out our Links Page.



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