How to Cut Your Electricity Bills in Half

Written by Andy Shadrack with Gail Bauman

We live in Kaslo, a jewel of a community nestled on the shore of Kootenay Lake in the mountain forests north of Nelson, in the West Kootenays. We have a 900 square foot house, and our daughter left home in 1996.

We began looking at our household energy consumption more than a decade ago, but we were frightened away from solar when we were given an estimated cost of $70,000 for a system big enough to match our total energy needs in the summer and half in winter.

Last spring we heard about the work Bob Watters was doing helping people in our area get hooked up with solar. We contacted Bob and Bob connected us with Backwoods Solar.  The rest is history.

LOWERING OUR ENERGY USE

Undaunted, we started looking for a way to make our solar dream come true. And the first step towards this goal? Lowering our energy use. We set a target to bring our bi-monthly consumption down from its peak level of 1,000 to 1,300 kWh bimonthly. The average electricity consumption in BC per bimonthly billing period is 1,833 kWh. 

We began with the purchase of energy-efficient appliances, fortunate that all our appliances were old and needed replacing. We went from a top loading to a front loading washing machine, and we started washing clothes in cold water instead of hot, with the occasional warm. We do not own a dryer, so we hang our clothes on an outside clothesline in the warmer months and use a rack inside in winter.

Next we bought a new medium-sized chest freezer, replacing one that was too big and too old, a freezer-less fridge, and a new electric stove. All of our purchases sport "Energy Star" stickers, though the fridge had to be replaced after it broke down under warranty.

KILLING THE PHANTOMS

At the same time, we slowly cut down on the number of electronic gadgets in our home. Gail was thrilled to see the number of cords plugged into the living room power bar dwindle, and we began to turn many of them off at night.

Things like TVs and DVD players use "phantom power," drawing energy even when they're not being used. The only way to prevent this is by totally cutting off their power, either by shutting off their power bar or by unplugging them individually. We turn off a couple of power bars every night, including one for our modem, and none of our computers stay plugged in unless they're in use.

In the first year we decreased our average consumption from 1,036 kWh to 748 kWh per bimonthly billing period, and in the second year we got it down to 565 kWh. At some point during our energy conservation drive we reached a plateau, and the challenge became to stay there. In years three and four our average bills bounced back up to around 600 kWh. Then Gail inherited a small flat screen TV from her mother, and I decided I wanted a 42-inch for our living room.

A KITCHEN ON-OFF SWITCH FOR HOT WATER

The question then became how to offset our new energy uses and maintain our overall conservation goals, since we decided that we wanted to cut our consumption in half. Having already switched from incandescent to compact fluorescent (CF) light bulbs, we started slowly purchasing LED lights, in part because the CFs contained mercury. But a big change came when we asked an electrician to install an on/off switch in the kitchen for our hot water heater in the bathroom. We now have the hot water heater on for only four to five hours a day, usually first thing in the morning, so that we can have a shower or bath when we get up.

OUR SOLAR INVESTMENT

In years five, seven and eight we got our consumption back down to an average 550 kWh, or 9 kWh a day. This enabled us to reconsider solar PV, and last summer we took the plunge. We currently have eight 300 watt panels  made by ET Solar (2,400 kw) in our back yard, and we are awaiting final modifications before we begin net metering - selling our solar power into the grid when it produces more than we need, and buying power back when we don’t generate enough.

We are a modest income family of two entering our senior years, and our initial investment in energy-efficient appliances came to just over $3,700, which we will pay back in another 4 years. Our second investment, the solar PV, fell from the original estimate of $70,000 to $21,600. This included moving the meter base to the back of the lot, since we are not enamored with wireless smart meters. We also purchased a battery bank for storage, since we often have short, and sometimes longer, power outages here at the north end of Kootenay Lake.

Along the way towards achieving our goals we have consistently argued before the BC Utilities Commission that our electrical service provider, FortisBC, needs to provide clear financial incentives for conservation practices, such as the two tiered rate structure. We believe it is time to abolish the Basic Charge, as since cutting our consumption in half the cost of just hooking up to FortisBC has gone from 23.5% of our bill to 39%. 

When we buy gasoline we pay a unit price that includes the cost of infrastructure and delivery as part of the unit price, and so we should for electricity too, otherwise low consumption customers end up subsidizing high end power users if both pay the same the fixed charge to hook up to the grid.

REDUCING ENERGY CONSUMPTION WITHOUT BREAKING THE BANK

Andy's goal in all this is to see if it’s possible for a family to reduce their energy consumption without breaking the bank. For Gail, it is to accommodate her feeling that our generation has a moral responsibility to act differently towards the environment and other species on the planet. I doubt we will see the pay back on our solar system in our lifetime, but some 50 families in our area have installed solar PV over the last three years, and some are generating a modest income by doing so.

In the 2014 local government election, voters from Areas A, D and E in the Regional District of Central Kootenay voted in favour of paying a $15 per year parcel tax for ten years for the conservation of local ecosystems on private land. This is only the second time in Canada that this has happened, and the commitment will raise $1 million and help bring matching provincial, federal and conservation agencies funds for local projects around Kootenay Lake.

A SMALLER ECOLOGICAL FOOTPRINT, ONE HOUSEHOLD AT A TIME

We are so proud to live in a region of BC where people are making a financial commitment to not only conserve energy consumption and produce their own energy from the sun, but also to fund projects that will help maintain healthy ecosystems in our community. Making changes in our daily lives about what and how much we consume is the only way to ensure a future for our children and grandchildren.

Once we have figured out how our solar system fully works we will then consider cutting back on the three or four cords of wood we use to heat our home. Using our ancient baseboard heaters was never an option, but at $220 a cord for wood it may now be feasible to use some electric heat during the autumn and spring shoulder seasons, thus cutting down on our annual carbon emissions.

Please join us. Our journey has been fun and interesting, even Gail's decision to re-use the water from her hot water bottle by storing it in a jar until the next time she needs her hot water bottle, or allowing only rechargeable batteries in the house (we have two windup flashlights which do not need batteries). It's all about having a smaller ecological footprint, one household at a time, and it's about the fish and the many other living creatures we share this planet with.

Andy Shadrack served as the Director for Electoral Area D in the Regional District Central Kootenay from 2005 to 2014. Gail Bauman is a writer and songwriter.