Friday, July 18, 2008

Households asked to slash energy consumption

This article was published in the Palerang and District Bulletin in July 2008. When I first looked into household energy consumption, I was struck by two things - the incredible increase in energy consumption overall, and the contribution of lighting and entertainment to our energy usage. Once I realised the running cost of halogen downlights (something I had not been aware of as I never had any), I noticed that most of the newer houses seem to have halogen lights as the default option. Clearly, we need to better educate architects and builders when it comes to household energy efficiency. The other major culprit in our household energy expansion are the new widescreen televisions that Australians are so keen on. Many of these new televisions use more energy than the average household fridge.

NSW households are under pressure. Petrol prices are going through the roof, food is getting ever more expensive, water restrictions are still in place, and now the NSW state government has unveiled a new $150 million plan to cut energy consumption growth to zero. This will affect both households and businesses, as everybody will have to make significant cuts to their energy use.

Based on a business as usual scenario, residential household energy use is projected to increase nationally by 56 percent between 1990 and 2020. The latest ABS data show that in 2006, the vast majority of energy in NSW came from non-renewable sources, with black coal providing 89 percent of the total NSW electricity generation. This compared with only 7 percent for renewable energy from wind, solar, hydro or biomass.

It is clear that if we are to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent or more by 2050, business as usual is not an option. We need to both reduce our overall energy use and change to a different energy mix by replacing coal with lower emission resources such as natural gas and renewable energy. While households only have limited influence over the structure of our energy supply, the good news is that it often does not take much to improve the energy efficiency of your household and reduce your energy use.

This can be a win-win-win situation – good for the environment, good for national energy security and good for your wallet. And if you use the savings you make to opt for 100 percent Green Power, you will also contribute to changing our economy to a lower carbon future.

The easiest way to achieve an energy efficient house is to incorporate all significant features right from the start, such as solar orientation, insulation in walls, ceilings and floors, thermal mass and double-glazed windows. The savings in running costs for energy efficient houses will very quickly pay back the initial outlay in extra spending, as an average of 39 percent of energy consumed in typical Australian homes is used for heating and air-conditioning.

Unfortunately, most existing buildings are nowhere near that ideal, and many homes leak energy at an alarming rate through lack of insulation, cracks in the walls or gaps around windows or doorframes. Insulation should be a number one priority for all homeowners, particularly in our climate.

Energy use for residential lighting almost doubled in Australia between 1985 and 2005, and one of the major culprits has been the popularity of halogen downlights.

Contrary to popular opinion, halogen downlights do not save energy. Most halogen globes are as inefficient as traditional incandescent light bulbs, and several halogen lights are needed in the place of one standard light bulb to achieve even lighting levels in a room. As a result, energy consumption increases significantly.

Replacing inefficient light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) or micro-CFLs (for halogen light fittings) is a simple solution. Turning lights off when leaving a room further reduces energy consumption.

Stand-by power is also a major contributor to household energy use and can account for as much as ten percent of your electricity bill. Many electrical appliances continue to use power even when they are turned off. In an average Australian home, items on standby power together generate over 750 kilograms of unnecessary greenhouse gas emissions each year. The easiest way to ensure you are not paying for phantom power is to turn appliances off at the wall when not in use.

The popularity of game consoles, set-top boxes and plasma televisions is another factor in the rapid increase in power consumption. The energy requirements of televisions, for example, have risen rapidly with the increase in screen size, and large screen televisions can use up to four times as much power as older style televisions.

Refrigeration, on the other hand, is one area that has seen a massive improvement in energy efficiency of 40 percent over the last decade, making it more environmentally friendly to replace an old fridge rather than getting it repaired. If you are buying a new fridge, make sure you retire the old one.

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