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.

Electricity

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.

Gas

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.

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?

Switching to Green Electricity

One of the fastest and easiest ways that we can reduce our emissions is by being aware of the electricity that we use and where it comes from. As a nation, Australia is heavily reliant on fossil fuels for electricity, which provided 83.7% of our electricity in 2016 compared to renewable sources at 16.3%. We live in Victoria, which isn’t exactly dazzling in converting to renewable energy; in 2016 only 16% of the state’s energy came from renewable sources. The state government has committed to increasing renewables to 25% by 2020 and 40% by 2025 but, even if those targets are met, a lot of our electricity will still be coming from fossil fuels.

Even though the state grid has a limited amount of renewable energy being supplied to it, as a consumer we still have a degree of choice about how our power is produced. Electricity companies offer two types of electricity plans: green and default. The default plan that most homes sign up for allows the company to produce electricity from whatever source takes their fancy. The green plans require the company to produce a certain amount of your electricity from renewable sources. I’ve seen green plans range from 10% renewable all the way to 100% renewable.

Switching to a green energy plan can seem a bit superficial; the electricity that we actually use in our home is pooled, so just because we might pay for a green energy plan doesn’t mean that the specific electricity used in our home is green. The important thing here is the symbolism; companies like to follow dollars, and your dollars can speak louder than emails and phone calls will.

Finding a new electricity provider can involve a lot of research and ridiculous comparison websites. If you’re interested in shopping around, there’s a comparison page at the Green Electricity Guide that lists a lot of retailers I’ve never heard of before and a bit of information about their environmental credentials. It looks fancy and informative, but I’ve got a bit of a headache and I can’t be bothered, so I decided to just call our current company and switch with them. I signed up for a 100% green electricity plan, which took me 17 minutes on the phone, and I managed to negotiate a pay on time discount that fully offsets the slight increase in cost. Winning!

If you’re playing along at home…

If you aren’t already on a 100% green electricity plan, now is a great time to switch. With more and more companies realising the importance of offering green power to their customers, you might be able to save some money as well as the environment. Please share in the comments how much carbon you’ve been able to save and what sort of impact it had on your bill.