Thursday, September 21, 2006

Resources for Beating the Electric Rate Increase

Here in Peoria, we're all in a twitter because utility deregulation decided on 10 years ago has come home to roost, and has done so REALLY. EXPENSIVELY. without offering the vast majority of consumers any choice in electrical company (so no rate competition) but hitting us with prospective 55% rate increases. C.J. has covered the issue here and here; everyone IN Peoria already knows how we're about to get screwed* and anyone outside Peoria who cares can go google it up or read C.J.'s posts.

*I'm not entirely sure we will get screwed -- this year, anyway -- because it's an election year, and all available political parties and gubernatorial candidates are saying it's the other party's fault and promising if THEY are elected, they will immediately put in place a rate freeze on behalf of the consumers. Meanwhile, the AG's office is suing the state's electric utilities en masse. All massive utility rate increases should occur during election cycles. It's also sort-of instructive how eager Illinois politicians are to back off a duly-passed (if, IMHO, ill-conceived) law that might snark off citizens in an election year.

Anyway, this post isn't about that. This post is about some resources for people looking to lower their electricity use (and therefore their bills). As regular readers of this blog know, I'm committed to environmentalism for reasons theological, political, practical, and personal. But I'm not committed to living in a cave or giving up daily hygiene practices. So these links have a variety of changes one can make, small or large, cheap or expensive, that will lower the electricity bill at least a little bit. (Those would be practical and personal reasons for environmentalism.)

Power Generation

To start with the most expensive change: If your roof is in rough shape, and you're thinking of reroofing, consider solar roofing tiles. You don't have to commit to huge ugly panels any longer, and costs have come down dramatically. The new solar roofing fits in with common asphalt tiles and serves as your roofing tiles.

SunSlates and United Solar Ovonics are two of the big players in the field. SunSlates are actual roofing tiles with solar panels in them -- the electrical connections are in the tile overlap, so clever -- that you can install as a full or partial roof. The Ovonics product is like a roll of solar sheeting, which is a little hard to describe, but Ovonics claims is more energy-efficient. Both look "roofy" and don't scream "I have hideously ugly solar energy on my roof and my neighbors hate me!" The SunSlates, in particular, look basically like regular roof unless the sun is hitting them directly, in which case they look like very shiney regular roof.

The cost for solar roofing is typically estimated to be 150% to 200% of "normal" roofing, plus $100 or so to have an electrician hook the system into your home's electric. BUT! The State of Illinois WILL PAY YOU to install solar roofing! Check out DSIRE , where you can read about renewable energy incentives. (I've linked to Illinois but they list incentives for all 50 states.) In Illinois, the best offers for homeowners rebate you 30% of the cost of your renewable energy installation at a residential property, up to $400,000.

Many utilities also allow you to sell back any extra energy you generate to the utility, making your meter spin backwards. I know ComEd in Chicago does; I don't know if AmerenCILCO in Peoria does or not. It's worth a phone call to find out. A simple roof installation on a typical home won't cover all your electrical usage year-round unless you EnergyStar the crap out of your home, but when you're producing more than you're using (say during a sunny summer day when everyone's at work and all you're powering is the clock radio), you'll be selling that extra to the utility and lowering your bill.

"But Illinois is so cloudy!" you complain. Ah, grasshopper, UIUC begs to differ. On page 12 (in adobe; page 4 of the internal pagination) of this report, you can see a lovely map of statewide average daily solar production for each of the 12 months of the year utilizing data gathered over the last 15 years. Even in grey January, your solar panels will produce a steady drip of power (plus, no trees will be blocking them from sucking up every last photon of sunlight). You can also read a lot of geek-speak about solar potentiality in Illinois. Interestingly (and not from this report), if you follow Daley's greening of Chicago, solar experts say that Chicago has the potential to generate MORE solar power per square meter of solar panel than Phoenix does, because current solar panels become inefficient at the ultra-high temperatures of summer in the sunbelt! The Midwest is currently considered one of the top US residential solar-generation geographies; for solar-wind combo, we're way up the list (because almost all our cloudy days are windy days). There's basically nothing on the market now for residential wind generators (if you live on a farm, several European companies make modern home windmills for electricity generation, sort of like the big wind turbines but on a smaller scale), but there's some exciting little wind generators in belfry-like structures about the size of a fat, squat chimney currently in testing, so in five years you might be able to combine a solar roof with a little "wind belfry" for home energy generation.

Power Saving

For those of us not reroofing or building new (geothermal temperature control, which Terry Bibo wrote about in the Journal Star, is great for new constructions or more rural homes, but somewhat impractical to retrofit your house with in the city), there are lots of smaller changes to be made.

Energy Star appliances improve every year -- Consumer Reports can tell you all about them. Flourescent Light Bulbs are way better than they were even a year ago. A 15W compact flourescent (fits in your standard lamp fixtures with no adaptors or anything) replaces a 75W incandescent, sips proportionally less energy (that'd be like 1/5 of the incandescent?), and typically lasts a lot longer. (Incandescent bulbs' lifespans are unpredictable because they rely on the decay of the filament and sometimes you get one of those bulbs that lasts for, like, ever; flourescent bulbs are more predictable.)

Compact flourescents still cost more than incandescents, but they're still a savings when you factor in how much longer they last and how much less energy they use. We started with them about a year ago in a couple of fixtures we leave on a lot -- outdoor lights, the basement light by the litterboxes because Grey Cat can't see in the dark -- that I had gotten sick of changing all the time, and we're so pleased we've migrated them into most of our lamps and things. A year ago when I turned on my reading lamp, it would be really dark at first and take a minute to really get going, in that slow-to-turn-on-flourescent way. In just the past year, they've improved so much that they come on bright immediately. They also don't hum, and they cast a warm light, not that ugly green light that highlights all your facial blemishes and pimples.

One of the biggest energy hogs in your house is the clothes dryer, which uses something like 4 times the energy of the washer. The thing about the clothes dryer is, clothes will dry naturally on their own if you leave them alone, and there are lots of good options. You can find those "umbrella-style" clothes lines -- a pole that opens up, umbrella-style, for a compact clothes drying space -- at Menard's, Do It Best, or Lehman's (more on them below). They take up little space in the backyard and many can be taken down in the winter. In the winter, your clothes will actually dry FASTER because our air in the midwest is so friggin' dry in the winter, and they'll release that moisture into your house if you do it indoors. I'm experimenting with that this winter, with drying racks; sometimes drying clothes indoors just makes the whole house smell like wet dog. If I'm doing six loads of laundry, I'm using my dryer. But for smaller laundry days, air drying has worked out well for me.

(Added note: Clothes dryers are really hard on your clothes. As a general rule, air-dryed clothes will last longer and stay in better condition, providing you don't accidentally bleach them by leaving them out for three days in the sun. Air-dryed clothes don't need fabric softener, which is also surprisingly hard on your clothes because it works by compromising the integrity of the fibers.)

If you need to replace your hot water tank heater, why not look into a tankless? (Okay, so for a lot of us, this saves us on natural gas costs, not electricity. But bear with me -- we'll get to the electricity in a minute!) Tankless water heaters, common in Europe and Asia, only heat the water when you need it, typically resulting in a 50% savings on water-heating costs. The electric-heated models are good, but the gas-heated models are fantastic. They can typically heat water for more appliances at once, and they allow you to take a literally endless shower (not that any of you good water-savers would do such a thing!). If you've got six people in the house all showering in the morning, nobody's going to get stuck with a cold shower when the water runs out with a tankless.

So here's the electricity-saving part: with a tank-heater, you not only are heating the water whether or not you're using it, but you're heating up the air around the tank as the tank releases its heat into the surrounding atmosphere. Not such a big deal in the winter, but in the summer, your tank is making your house hotter, and if you're running your air conditioning, you are paying extra in A/C costs to cool that air back off. Which, in turn, cools the tank faster, which causes it to re-heat the water sooner, which makes your A/C work harder. Depending on the efficiency of your A/C and the insulation of your tank, the costs can be appalling.

Modern tankless heaters also claim to last longer than tanks, and parts are much cheaper to replace than the tank. (It's just a few pipes, after all.)

Finally, a couple resources for electricity-saving STUFF.

Co-op America maintains a National Green Pages -- a yellow pages for green businesses. Whether you're interested in solar roofing, tankless heaters, or anything else electricity-saving or green, the National Green Pages will have a listing for a company or six that has it. They also have contractors who specialize in green technology installation, although most "regular" contractors can do these things easily.

And last but best of all, let me direct you to possibly my favorite catalog of all time, the Lehman's Non-Electric Catalog. Originally a store catering to the Amish, Lehman's has every kind of non-electric home gadget, appliance, toy, and doo-dad you could possibly imagine. Their customer service is great and their products are very high-quality. If you really like margaritas, and you need to make them non-electrically, either because you're on rumspringa with a jones for margaritas or because you're tailgating and can't power your blender, Lehman's carries an efficient hand-cranked blender. Seriously. Hand-cranked blender.

They have all manner of drying solutions (clotheslines, stands, indoor thingies); a mortar-and-pestle (combined with a sharp kitchen knife) has basically rendered my food processor obsolete for all but the biggest jobs; and they have everything from propane refrigerators (if you were serious about going off the grid) to woodstoves to oil lamps to kick-ass gardening tools. (Best. Hoe. Ever.)


Cara said...

Excellent stuff Eyebrows! Thank you very much! I am right now printing and will be taking home to study.

Also, if you will allow me a Green Party campaign plus, while the subject is sort of environmental.

Rich Whitney, the Green Party Candidate for Governor, will be at Rhythm Kitchen tonight, 5-7pm (and later). Come talk to him. Ask questions. He's of the non-yurt environmentalism ilk that CJ so kindly referred to (me too, non-yurt that is).

Anonymous said...

Wow Eyebrows, I am impressed. You really did your homework! That was a lot of very useful information

knight in dragonland said...

Endless ... hot ... shower ... (groaning in ecstasy)

I must say that is my number one environmental sin. I'm a shameless shower hog. I probably should avoid that option unless I want to turn into a giant prune and waste all the fresh water in the Tricounty Area.

Thanks for the great info, Eyebrows. Truly top notch.

PeoriaIllinoisan said...

Never thought I'd hear the words "Lehmans" on a Peoria blog! They've got a great catalog, and it's true, they're super nice people to boot!

prego man said...

... zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...