Winter Utilities Check-up

The winter of 2020 has been a particularly unusual season for us. Lockdown to manage the pandemic has meant that we’ve been at home almost constantly and, with access to allied health heavily restricted, my musculoskeletal issues have flared up and I’ve felt the cold badly. It’s challenging to care about long term environmental impacts when you’re struggling to get through each day with health and sanity intact. As a result, showers have been longer and the thermostat has been set higher.

Our winter utility bills have now arrived, and with trepidation I finally looked at the numbers. I’m thrilled to report that our positive structural changes to the home have more than offset our negative behavioural changes.


The big winner here was in the electricity bill. According to the usage summary, our electricity usage has decreased from 5.26kWh to 4.16kWh per day, which is a drop of 20.91%. If I drill a bit deeper into the bill, this picture becomes even better. For the 91 days of this bill period, we imported 378.387kWh of electricity. During the same period, we exported 399.996kWh of electricity. Put those numbers together, and it means we were a net exporter of 21.609kWh over the winter months. Due to heating and hours of sunlight, our winter electricity bill is always the worst for the year. This means that in a single year we’ve managed to become carbon negative on our electricity usage, so I am ridiculously thrilled by our progress here.


Our second big win was in the gas bill. According to the usage summary, we’ve gone from 273.07MJ to 185.90MJ, which is a 31.92% decrease. This means our indicative greenhouse gas emissions have dropped from 0.9 tonnes to 0.6 tonnes compared to last year. We still have a long way to go here, but I’m very pleased with how far we’ve already come.

So Why The Change?

There are probably dozens of small changes that we’ve made over the past year that I’m blind to, but the key ones for this are:

  1. Solar panels – our real electricity usage increased over the period, but those changes were more than offset by using our own power.
  2. Split system air conditioner – we still use the ducted gas heating in the house, but by using the split system to heat the house during the daylight hours it maintains the heat from the gas. I have set the temperature on the split system one degree higher than the gas thermostat, which is in the same room, so the gas only turns on when the split is no longer up to the job.
  3. Insulation – we insulated the bedrooms and study, so we are losing less heat through the walls. This is particularly noticeable in my bedroom, which is blatantly warmer than the rest of the house when I open the door in the morning. I suspect this insulation is how the split system is able to maintain the warmth throughout the day.
  4. Hot water pilot light – our hot water system is a continuous hot water system that runs on gas. I turn the pilot light off when it isn’t in use, which is most of the time. If I want a small amount of hot water I now boil the kettle and use that. This means that I’m only heating the water I want to use, so we aren’t wasting a lot of water down the drain waiting for it to heat up and clear the pipes either. This has spilled over into cooking, where I will now use the kettle to pre boil water for boiling food.

For me there is a critical takeaway to looking at these power bills: we dramatically dropped our usage through structural change without much behavioural change. Climate action hasn’t been front and centre of our minds this year, but we’ve made a huge improvement without sacrificing a single creature comfort. Keeping up these changes doesn’t require any effort for us, they’re just normal now.

If you’re playing along at home…

..what are some structural changes you could make that will permanently reduce your emissions without compromising your lifestyle? Please share your ideas in the comments below.

Solar Panel Installation

On Monday last week we were able to complete the first major piece of work on our journey to becoming carbon negative: our photovoltaic system was installed.

Solar panels on the roof

We have 10 panels on our north-facing roof for a combined capacity of 2.75kW. The power company estimates that we will generate an average of between 5.62 – 11.82kWh electricity per day, as per the table below:

System Performance Estimate

Based on our electricity bills, our daily generation will either cover or surpass our daily usage. This means that we will be either carbon neutral or carbon negative for our electricity consumption throughout the year. The electricity that we don’t use will be exported to the grid, which will help the it to reduce its emissions by a tiny amount too.

The electrical inspector came by on Tuesday this week and turned on the system for us. We still need to sort out the changes to our electricity plan so that we are paid for what we export to the grid, but from the environmental perspective we are done. We got dressed up, we went out, and we celebrated.

If you’re playing along at home…

…have you installed solar panels? Please share in the comments below how much of your electricity usage you were able to generate yourself.

Reflecting on One Year of Climate Action

1[1]Tomorrow marks the first anniversary of this blog, and I wanted to use it as an opportunity to reflect on our mission to change our carbon emissions to an overall negative level. We’ve learned a lot in that time about climate change and, equally importantly, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves.

We can’t do everything at once

It’s all well and good to say that we’re going to stop contributing to pollution tomorrow. In practice, the only way I can think of to achieve it that quickly is death, and I’d rather downgrade that solution to Plan B (or Z). So much of our culture is based upon technologies and resources that harm our planet; the scope of the problem is so huge that if you tackle it all at once you’ll burn out quickly and end up in despair. It’s better to make one successful change at a time than to attempt fifty and succeed at none of them.

We’re more powerful than we knew

We don’t need to rely on governments to start making positive changes to the way we live our lives. If we want to plant some vegetables to reduce food miles or recycle our soft plastics instead of sending them to landfill then we have that power. We might not be able to do much at a global scale about climate change, but that certainly doesn’t limit the things that we can do at home. Taking control of our actions and being proactive tends to spill over into other areas of our lives, and that’s a great bonus.

The faster we change the easier it becomes

There is a carbon budget that is discussed in climate change models. This budget is the amount of carbon that can be released into the atmosphere before we reach key levels of temperature increase. One of the biggest problems with the climate budget is that nobody knows exactly what it is. I could spend days researching the exact levels predicted by different models, or I could simplify it all to a simple truth: the less we pollute today, the more wriggle room we have tomorrow. Making choices now that reduce our emissions means our children will have more options for further improvements.

Sometimes you take one step backwards so you can take two steps forwards

Earlier this year I spent a few months working full time out of the home. The cash injection was significant for our family, but I felt very uncomfortable about how long I spent behind the wheel every day in order to get to work. At a time when we were trying to reduce our emissions I was going out and increasing them, and it felt hypocritical. We used that additional income to fund changes around our house that will permanently reduce our emissions. The additional emissions might have been philosophically unpleasant, but I estimate that those reductions will compensate for them within 1-2 years.

If you’re playing along at home…

…has attempting to tackle climate change taught you anything about yourself or the world around you? Please share in the comments below what has captured your thoughts in this process.

A House Full of Tradies

At the start of this month I applied for a rebate from Solar Victoria for a new PV system for the house. As part of that installation, we’ve had to get the external asbestos removed from the house. Since there was also asbestos behind our switchboard, this was a job that required multiple trades to do the work.

Working on this house has definitely been a voyage of discovery. “Dodgy as <insert expletive>” is a phrase that gets used around here with a high degree of frequency and creativity. Between a long list of poorly executed renovations and the mere age of the house, we’ve realised that the amount of work required to bring this place up to the standard that we want is going to take a lot longer than we initially planned.

Problem One – Electrics

We’ve now removed the asbestos from the switchboard, and we had hoped that would be the worst of it. Ha ha, no. The wiring from the street brings the standard capacity, but the wiring from the fuse to the switchboard is only half that capacity. The sparkie thought that our solar installers will need to upgrade this in order to connect the panels. Regardless of how that aspect goes, he advised us that we can’t convert our gas appliances to electric versions until the wiring is upgraded. To make this even better, we’ve got the old style of wiring that’s wrapped in cloth, and I’ve been happily assured that this is the sort of cabling that eventually becomes a fire risk.

Problem Two – Gas

Essentially another aspect of the previous problem, without a cabling upgrade to the house we don’t have the capacity to convert any of our existing gas appliances to electric replacements. This means that if any break down and need to be urgently replaced, we’d probably be stuck replacing them with a new gas model, and that is completely out of the question for us.

Problem Three – Insulation

We had two asbestos panels removed from the front wall of the house, and it became immediately obvious that the walls have no insulation in them at all. The minimum insulation rating for walls in Melbourne is currently recommended at R2.8. This is a great opportunity to upgrade the insulation for that part of the wall, so we’ve ordered some insulation rated at R7.0 and it should arrive next week. While that’s lovely for this part of the house, it does leave us with the question about what to do for the rest of it. If we put insulation inside the walls, we’re going to need to take down the plaster from inside to fit the insulation in, and that will be some major work. There are insulation options that can be applied to the external walls, but these will change the look and feel of our house. Regardless of what we eventually decide to do, the first step is going to be lengthy research.

Problem Four – Windows

We already knew the windows were a bit below standard, and eventually we want to upgrade them to double glazing or better, but we were surprised by how much the woodwork around them suffered during the asbestos removal. The frames had been poorly maintained, and sections fell off during the work, so we’re going to need to look into this work a lot sooner than planned. I’d like to say this came as a shock, but after an entire stretch of cornice fell off the living room ceiling last week… *shrug*

Problem Five – That <insert expletive> Cornice

Hole in the roof
Because who doesn’t love cabling just hanging through the ceiling?

Speaking off which, where the cornice fell off the ceiling has left a gap in the plaster. The warm air from our heater is now rising into our roof space and happily flowing out through the open eaves. It was 2°C outside this morning and a balmy 10°C inside the house when we woke up. The children were inexplicably keen to snuggle up with me under a mound of blankets. I do cherish their affection, but it makes it difficult to convince them to get up and dressed for the day. Our carbon use is going to skyrocket until we get some of these holes patched up.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a long list of structural challenges that are stopping you from reducing your footprint? Please share in the comments below the obstacles that you’re facing in your home.

Applying For A Solar Victoria PV Rebate

If you’re living in Victoria, and you’re remotely interested in renewable energy, then your news feed earlier this month was probably filled with anguish over the Solar Victoria rebate scheme, particularly the rebates for owner-occupied PV installations. To bring everyone up to speed, each month there are 3,333 rebates of up to $2,225 or a maximum 50% and interest-free loans up to the maximum value of the rebate offered. The July rebates were gone in 60 hours, and sales reps in the industry were quick to warn consumers that the August allocation would probably go even faster.

It opened at 9am and was gone by 11am.

The process for applying for a rebate has been streamlined. Compared to the previous application process, it is definitely faster to get a determination – my parents were waiting for months after their system was installed to get a response. That said, I also don’t recall Dad needing a stiff cup of tea and a good lie down while he worked through it.

We were one of the lucky households to secure a rebate this month. There were 3,767 rebates on offer, which I suspect was 3,333 for the month plus an additional 434 rebates from people who didn’t complete the application process in time during July. Since we were almost in that camp this month, I’m going to take you through the process pain points in detail.

Step 1 – Find your quote online

With the new application process, your solar installer needs to upload the quote before you can do anything in the system, and it apparently needs to be uploaded during the allocation month. Even though our sales rep told us that he would have the quote uploaded by 9:30am, he had a “technical issue” and the upload “must not have worked for some reason”. You’ll get an email from Solar Victoria confirming that a quote has been uploaded, so if you don’t have that email get on the phone to your sales rep straight away.

Once the quote has been uploaded, you’ll need to know the name of the company, the quote number and the dollar value before any rebates or subsidies are applied. You’re going to want to have a copy of this open and accessible by 8:59am, because until you get past this step you don’t have a place in the queue.

Upload your council rates notice

In order to be eligible for the rebate, you must own your property and it must be valued at less than $3 million; your council rates notice is what the system uses to establish this. You’re going to need to take a photo of it, meaning a scanned or electronic copy won’t satisfy the test. I’ll say it now and just assume I am repeating this sentiment for every step – the system is finicky.

Because we only bought our property in April, we didn’t have a rates notice at the time of application from the council. However, I was able to contact them, and they sent through a Summary of Rates & Charges. I printed it, photographed it, and after the system rejected the photo twice I was able to manually input the data.

Homeowner details

In order to be eligible for the rebate, the homeowners need a combined income of less than $180,000 per year. There are a few ways to establish this, and we used our Notice of Assessment from the ATO. If you don’t have your assessment for the 2018/2019 year, the previous years assessment was fine for August. Not only do you have to upload photos of this – meaning print a perfectly good electronic file and fuss around – but you also have to redact the TFN. I tried with a Sharpie – didn’t work – and ended up just cutting out a small strip of dark paper to obscure the numbers with.

After this step, you’ll need to select a single homeowner for the ID checks and other paperwork tied to a single individual. Once I selected myself and continued, we were presented with our offer and the option to accept an interest-free loan as well as the rebate.


Loan Details

You’ll need to tick the two accept buttons (assuming you do, of course). Once you’ve done that, you’ll need to set up a direct debit request, so you’ll need the bank account details of your preferred account. Credit cards aren’t an option – it wants BSB and account numbers.

Step 2 – Your Identity

If you’ve been a bit stressed with getting the process to work up until this point, then you’re going to be giddy with joy over the next step. It’s going to work one of two ways – either you’ll get it to do what it’s supposed to do, or it will kick you out and you’ll get to start all over again. On 1 August I spent almost an hour on trying to get this step to work before it kicked me out and I had to start the application from scratch. You see, it tells you that it has saved your application at the end of step 1, but it doesn’t send you a recovery link in case you get into trouble. Even if you save and exit, the emailed link can only be used once, so if it kicks you out you’re back to the start. Muahahaha, brilliant.

You can get this step done offline, and it’s so painful I would suggest you do that if you have an older phone, but lets persevere with the online version for now because I borrowed a new phone to complete the ID check.

Once you key in your mobile number, it will send you an SMS link. Eventually. Once it arrives and determines your phone is compatible, you can select an ID from: Australian passport, foreign passport, Australian birth certificate, or an ImmiCard. I chose the Australian Passport. I took a photo of the passport and then went into the facial recognition step. You put your face in the oval, it will tell you to smile, and then you have to turn your head to the right. It directs you with voice prompts.

After completing that check, I also needed to take a photo of the front and back of my drivers licence. Once that was complete and I confirmed the details, I was redirected back to my laptop to complete the process. You can remember the ID check for next time, which I chose to do.

Step 3 – Review

This is fairly simple. You just need to check over everything and tick all of the consent boxes (assuming of course that it’s all correct and you agree to the terms).

Step 4 – Done

Because our council document was rejected by the system, our application needed to be reviewed. We received an email saying they would be in touch within 5 business days with any requests for more information, and that we would have 5 business days to respond. In practice this took around 4 hours on 9 August and we weren’t required to provide additional paperwork. I suspect that it wouldn’t have been so fast if I’ve been able to complete the forms 1 or 2 August.

Where to from here

For our family, getting this rebate and the loan is the difference between getting solar now and getting solar in 5-10 years. We need to pay for a lot more work on the house to accommodate the panels than we had anticipated, so it could be months before we manage to get the installation complete, but we’ve made it over the first hurdle. We now need to finalise the contract with our installers, get that necessary work carried out, and then get the panels installed. After that comes a round of safety checks and getting our electricity plan converted to a solar plan. Assuming that we don’t hit any unexpected delays, the system should be live in time for summer.

If you’re playing along at home…

…then good luck. Please share in the comments below if you would still get solar panels installed if you couldn’t access the rebate and/or loan.

Shower Timers

One of the great luxuries in my life is a steamy hot shower. Between my exceptionally well-developed allergies and a lot of muscle and joint pain, more than one person has referred to the shower as my “safe place”. It’s somewhere that I can go and feel like a human being again. I take the kids in with me and wash them while I get myself sorted out, which reduces our family’s consumption since we share, but the showers had reached a length where it was time to acknowledge that my behaviour wasn’t sustainable.

The first thing I did was take note of how long I need to stay in the shower to get the health benefits. It actually isn’t long at all compared to how much time I was spending in there. The next thing I did was set a timer on my phone that would give me enough time to ease my muscles and sinuses, plus a couple of spare minutes to sort out the kids. I start the timer, get the water running, and when the alarm goes off we get out.

Our first few showers were a source of significant outrage for the girls. “But we just got in,” was protested loudly and with vigour. They made sure they blocked me from getting to the taps. They dragged their feet getting in with the hope that a slow start would make for extra time. Somehow they lost the ability to rinse themselves. I was fairly proud of their ingenuity.

Over the following weeks the protests slowly stopped. We got into the habit of having shorter showers. My girls started pointing out to me that the water needed to go off when the alarm started. Once their expectation for the length of a shower aligned with the timer, I started to casually reduce the time by a few seconds each week. We’re about half way now between what I’ve timed my body needs and where I started our timed showers.

When our latest gas bill arrived, I was genuinely shocked at the difference compared to last year. We only have three gas appliances in our home: our stove top, our gas central heating, and the hot water tank. Since we have solar hot water, and the gas is more of a booster than anything else, I expected this to be an insignificant change given the summer months. As you can see from our bill below, I was completely wrong.

48.71% decrease in gas usage

Because our usage is now so low, rounding means that I can’t see what our actual emissions were on the bill. Thanks to the calculator over at Carbon Neutral, I know that our carbon emissions for the two months were only 0.04 tonnes. That’s great, but what I’m really looking forward to now is seeing the drop on our next water bill.

If you’re playing along at home…

…can a timer for your showers help you to reduce your energy consumption? Please share in the comments below how much you’ve been able to reduce your environmental footprint through timers and what you used those timers for.

Our First Electricity Bill

We started working on reducing our carbon footprint in September this year, and we have now received our first electricity bill that has been generated entirely during this project. From when we moved into this house our usage had been consistently increasing, so we were all curious to see whether or not we had been able to change our behaviour and curb our consumption. The snapshot below is from that bill.

Our daily electricity use has dropped by 24.62% since last year.

We now pay an additional 5.10 c/kWh for 100% renewable energy, which only added $18.20 onto the bill. By managing to bring our consumption down so low, we were able to get our bill well under $200 for three months. At a time when Australians are suffering severe financial strain due to energy prices, this isn’t putting a significant financial burden on our family. The following table compares our summer usage to that of other households in the area.

Our electricity usage is significantly lower than comparable households.

As you can see, our four person household is using significantly less electricity than a one person household in our area. We’re really proud of ourselves for cutting back where we could and offsetting what we couldn’t reduce. At this point it would be easy to say that we’ve gone as far as we can and that now it’s time to sit back and relax, but that defeats the spirit of this challenge. We’re working on a lot of ideas that will reduce our household consumption even further – we still need to get through next winter in a house warmed by gas appliances – and I can’t wait to share with you next year some of the creative ideas that we’re testing.

If you’re playing along at home…

…please share in the comments below some of the emissions that you’ve been able to reduce this year. How far have you been able to come with your electricity bill? How far do you still have to go? What is your baseline for making 2019 better for the planet?

Reducing Refrigeration

At the start of this project I used the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. We scored well in some areas, but on refrigeration we did badly:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449

The reason we did so badly on this category is due to the fridge in our garage; it’s very old and very inefficient. We got it when we had additional people living in the house, and over time we became used to having it there. It was very convenient to be able to put meals in a second fridge instead of making space in our kitchen fridge or hiding indulgent treats from the children in a freezer that they can’t reach.

Even though we switched to 100% green electricity, and as a result our power company has to supply at least as much green energy to the grid as we use, ignoring high electricity usage areas is the wrong approach for our project. If we can draw less electricity from the grid then it will mean more green energy is available to everyone else who is still on a default plan.

The solution to this problem was obvious: turn off the damn fridge.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t as quick as it sounds; there was a lot of stuff in that fridge. We needed to change the way we approached food shopping and storage. The following steps helped us transition from two fridges back down to one:

  • We composted any food items that were past their use by date.
  • We repackaged bulky, awkward things into containers that were easier to stack neatly into smaller spaces.
  • We moved all of the frozen meals that people weren’t keen on eating to the top of the pile in the freezer, which made them much harder to ignore than when they were down the bottom.
  • We finally cooked with those infrequent ingredients that were taking up a lot of space.
  • I sacrificed myself and finished off the half eaten tubs of ice cream. It was a burden, but I did it for the good of the planet. You can thank me later.
  • We changed where we stored things. Some items were moved from the fridge to the freezer, and others were moved in the other direction, which meant we were able to reduce a lot of cooking time and energy freezing and thawing food.

I’m pleased to report that the second fridge is now empty and turned off. Since we only have one fridge, and I know that it is rated at 388 kWh per year, I can use the formula at Cool Australia to work out that we are have reduced our emissions from 2.226 metric tonnes per year to just 0.454 metric tonnes. That’s a saving of 1.772 metric tonnes, and a reduction of nearly 7% of our family’s total estimated emissions.

If you’re playing along at home…

…do you have a second fridge that you could turn off, or an inefficient model that could be replaced with an energy efficient one? There are a few charities and non-profit groups who are waiting to take your old fridge and give it a new, environmentally friendlier life. Please share in the comments below what you’ve done to reduce the energy you use for refrigeration and freezing.

What Are Our Starting Emissions?

It’s one thing to say that we want to become a carbon negative family, but quite another to actually achieve that goal. The carbon that our activities release into the environment is invisible and typically occurs far away from our home and our consciousness. When I’m standing in the supermarket looking at two products that appear to be interchangeable, but are produced by different companies in different packaging, I have no idea how I am supposed to know which one is environmentally more responsible. I don’t think about the way our energy is produced when I turn on the television so the kids will leave me alone for twenty minutes. How bad can it really be?

Australian Emissions

Since we live in Australia, it’s worth looking at average Australian Emissions as a starting point. Environmental awareness seems to be everywhere these days. People are switching from the old halogen light bulbs to more efficient alternatives, and solar panels seem to be springing up on roof tops everywhere. There has been a big push for better insulation in homes, people commute with public transport, and supermarkets have begun to get rid of single use plastic bags. Sure, our new prime minister once walked into parliament with a lump of coal that was supposedly our salvation but, that inexplicable moment aside, as a nation we must be rocking it. Right?

Well, it turns out that we aren’t rocking it at all when it comes to our emissions. In December 2017, the ABC reported that our emissions rose for the third consecutive year. Even though our per capita emissions are now at their lowest level in 28 years, we are still producing 1.3% of global emissions. Given that we have a national population of approximately 25 million people in a global population of around 7.5 billion people, that’s not great. To save on mathematics, according to the World Bank, Australians produced 15.4 metric tons per capita in 2014. It’s easy to try the developed country argument but, according to the same source, the Euro area only produced 6.5 metric tons per capita and the world average was 5.0. That means we produce more than twice the emissions of some other developed countries, and more than triple the rest of the world.


Our Emissions

There are four of us, so the World Bank’s calculations mean that we are contributing 61.6 metric tons of carbon emissions as a family. That number is staggering and difficult to comprehend. I want to insist that we can’t be so bad as a family, that we’re sensible and practical people who are surely under the average, but denial rarely leads to solving problems. It’s possible that we’re under the average, and just as possible that we’re over it. We need to know.

I decided to use the Australian Greenhouse Calculator provided by the EPA to assess our emissions. Each category provides a quick and a detailed level and benchmarks your energy usage against that of a comparable Australian household. Switching to the detailed level gave us sometimes dramatically different results, which were as follows:

Category Our Calculated Emissions Typical Household’s Emissions Green Household’s Emissions
Transport 3.708 7.303 2.766
Air Travel 1.221* 1.427 0.357
Heating and Cooling 0.456 2.07 0.843
Hot Water 0.671 4.841 0.881
Clothes Dryer 0.0 0.258 0.084
Lighting 0.306 1.109 0.424
Refrigeration 2.226 1.24 0.449
Cooking 0.841 0.858 0.621
Other Appliances 3.428 2.052 0.508
Food and Shopping 12.772 12.359 8.27
Waste -0.023 -0.024 -0.05
Total 25.606 33.493 15.153

*For flights, we typically alternate domestic and international flights each year. To calculate this, I put in the holidays for two years and then divided by two.

At the start of the calculator I felt pretty happy about how much we were under a typical household on some of the categories. Heating and cooling? Nice. Clothes dryer? Boom. Then I arrived at some of the later categories and the smugness quickly wore off. Since there are four of us in the family, this calculator gives us each an annual emissions rate of 6.4015 tonnes per person. We might be doing well in some areas, but we obviously have a lot of behaviours that need to be worked on, and quickly.

If you’re playing along at home…

…then find an emissions calculator tailored to your geographic area and find out how well your family rates. Are you doing better or worse than we are? Were you surprised by how well or how poorly you were doing in some areas? Please share your starting point in the comments below.