How I chose my solar system setup (+ avoided unnecessary waste)

When I moved house, my number 2 priority was getting solar panels. (My number 1 priority? That was digging in the compost bin, of course!) I was pretty keen to get a solar system sorted as soon as possible, and as of Tuesday, my roof is now wearing 11 lovely panels and making me free electricity from the sun.

I posted a photo of my roof on social media, and received a few questions asking which company I’d gone with, and a lot of nervousness about making the ‘right’ choice or finding the ‘best’ company.

I get it! Solar systems might pay for themselves eventually but they are a big cost upfront, and the internet is a crowded place when looking for help and information.

I thought I’d talk you through my decision-making process, and how I came to choose the system that I have.

I’m not saying it’s necessarily right for you, but if you’re thinking about getting solar, some of the questions (and answers) will definitely be relevant.

How Solar Systems Work – An Overview

Yes, solar panels make electricity from the sun. But beyond that, it’s important to understand how they work so you can choose a system that meets your needs, and not pay more for something that’s too big. That’s a waste – of your money and resources generally.

Solar panels make electricity when the sun hits them directly. In Australia and the southern hemisphere, this is on the north facing roof; in the northern hemisphere it’s the south-facing roof. Where I live, a north facing roof will get sunlight from 9am – 3pm (ish) in winter, and 8am – 6pm (ish) in summer (the sun never sets after 7.45pm here).

So that means I can use ‘free’ electricity during those hours, but outside of that, I still need to rely on the grid (or use a battery).

The excess electricity I produce during sunlight hours will go to the grid. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as giving electricity to the grid in the day and getting it back at night. Or at least, it’s not a simple exchange financially. I sell my spare electricity to the grid during the day for 7 cents a unit (this is called the feed-in tariff), but when I buy it back, it costs me 28 cents a unit.


Let me explain the numbers. When you receive your electricity bill, it will tell you how many units you use every day. If you’re a low electricity user and/or have gas, you might use 5 units per day. If you have a big house, with heaps of gadgets, you’ll use more. The Australian average is 19.8 units a day. It will also vary by seasons (winter means more heating).

A unit is 1kWh, shorthand for 1000 watts per hour. When we talk about solar systems, we talk in kW – for example, a 1.5kW or 3kW or a 5kW system. What this means is every hour that the sun is shining, a 3kW system will produce ~3kW of power, meaning 3 units every hour.

Except this isn’t quite accurate, as panels and systems aren’t 100% efficient. In the morning or the evening they won’t crank at full power, nor if shaded, and once they reach 25°C/77°F they lose output efficiency – which can be 25%. (In Australia, panels tend to work better in spring and autumn than summer – black glass in full sun is going to get very hot very quickly.)

An average 3kW system might generate ~13 units per (sunny) day. (That’s 3 units per hour in the middle of the day, and a bit less in the early morning and late afternoon, and none that time the sun briefly went behind a cloud.)

Panels are usually 250 – 380W each depending on the brand, so 3-4 panels makes 1kW (1000 W). A 3kW system might have 10 – 12 panels.

Solar systems are made up of panels, and also an inverter. The solar panels use the sun to make direct current, and the inverter changes it to alternating current that can go into the grid/fed into the home.

The inverter is the limiting component: if an inverter is 3kW it will only ever be able to produce 3kW per hour, even if you had 20 panels, adding up to 6kW.

Often the panels will go slightly higher than the inverter (for example, 3.84kW of panels for a 3kW inverter), to help offset some of the energy ‘lost’ as inefficiency.

How Big Does My Solar System Need to Be?

There are a few things to think about when choosing a solar system. These are three questions I asked:

  • How much electricity do I use? (check previous bills);
  • How big is the part of the roof that faces in the right direction? (north for southern hemisphere, south for northern hemisphere);
  • What about battery storage?

Considering solar panels: how much electricity do I use?

I haven’t lived here long enough to know how much electricity I use, but I know that at my old place (which had separate solar hot water and no gas) I used 5 – 7 units a day. There was no air conditioning (the building was 10* energy rated) but I did use a heater sometimes in winter months.

I’m pretty careful with my electricity use, so it’s reasonable to assume that my electricity use might be the same, or a little bit higher (this place has air-con, which I might bust out on those 40°C/104°F + days in summer).

Considering solar panels: what is the orientation of my roof, and is that optimal for solar panels?

My roof doesn’t face north, it faces north-east. The back faces south-west, and the side faces south-east (there are only three sides as it’s a duplex/semi-detached). Not having north, north-east is best (because I’m in the southern hemisphere; if you were in the northern hemisphere, south and southern variations are best). Where I live, the south-west might pick up a bit of summer afternoon sun but would be useless in winter, and the south-east would be completely useless – in theory it might pick up a bit of morning summer sun, except there are heaps of trees on that side, so it’s in permanent shade.

The arc of the sun changes over the seasons. In winter it has a narrow arc that doesn’t get as high in the sky. In summer it rises further from the east, gets higher in the sky, and sets further to the west. The exact difference changes according to distance from the equator.

Because of the shape of the roof, I could fit 11 panels on the north-east side (which would be a 3kW system). Any additional panels would go on the south-west, only getting (some) summer afternoon sun.

Considering solar panels: is considering a battery an option?

Batteries in their current form don’t make sense (to me). Take the Tesla Powerwall, which holds 13.5kW of energy and costs around $9,000. If I use 7 units a day, I could use up the entire storage capacity in 2 days if the sun wasn’t shining. Then I’d need to buy power from the grid.

So a battery wouldn’t actually mean going off-grid.

When the sun is shining, of the 7 units I use a day, 2-3 units are outside daylight hours. To buy these costs me 28 cents a unit, so less than $1 a day. If I save $1 a day by having a battery, but that battery costs me $9000 to install, it will take 24 years to pay it off.

As a small user of electricity, I’m currently better off buying my evening electricity from the grid (well, if I actually had $9,000 to spend on a battery, which I do not).

Isn’t a bigger solar system ‘better’?

It’s easy to think that a bigger system is better. But that isn’t necessarily the case.

The issue is, most of us want to use at least some electricity when it’s evening, night time, overcast or raining. A bigger system isn’t going to do anything differently if there is no sun.

What about producing excess in the daytime? As I mentioned, I can sell my electricity back to the grid for 7 cents. That’s better than nothing, but it’s not a route to riches. Say I have a 3kW system that generates 13 units a day and I don’t use any of them (unlikely, as I keep my fridge plugged in even when I’m away).

Selling all 13 units to the grid, I’d make 91 cents a day.

The reality is I’ll be using some of that myself, and when I need electricity in the evening, I buy it back at 28 cents. If I use 2-3 units in the evening, that’s my 91 cents gone.

That might seem cost neutral. Except, where I live, I also have to pay a connection fee to the grid: it’s $1.03 a day.

(The connection fee is also a tax on people who can’t afford solar panels. In 2014, it was 36 cents a day. As more people get solar panels, the electricity company needs to get money elsewhere, so it tripled the supply charge. The people who lose the most are renters and those who can’t afford solar panels.)

So I may be able to sell electricity to offset my evening usage, but I’m still paying $1 a day in service fees.

If I wanted to offset this cost, I’d need another 3kW of panels, generating another 13 units of energy a day.

Except, then there are those days when it’s overcast, or it rains. Those days don’t make any units, so there needs to be more panels to cover this.

Once you get more panels (which cost more) you also need a bigger inverter (which costs more). Not to mention more (correctly oriented) roof space. This extra cost might pay itself back over several years, but the prices for buying and selling electricity and the connection fee costs aren’t guaranteed, and could change.

If the government changed its mind about allowing customers to sell their excess back, I wouldn’t get anything for what I didn’t use.

It makes more sense to get the smallest system you need to generate the power that you actually use, rather than going bigger and then selling the excess back to the grid.

I know for me, a smaller system means I will be more careful with the electricity I use. A bigger system would encourage me to be more lax, choosing less energy-efficient appliances, perhaps.

How to choose a solar system that lasts (and continues to work)

At my previous address, I had solar panels (installed when I moved in). After 18 months, they stopped working. There was no power to the inverter. I called the builder, who told me the developers had decided to organise the solar panels themselves because they were cheaper, and that the company they had used were going to be hard to chase up and that I would need to call them every day.

Which I did – to their call centre in India – for 8 months. When I moved out 18 months later, the panels were still not fixed, despite having a warranty on parts and labour.

This time I was very clear I was using a company that was based in Australia, with a local office I could call and a good reputation. I also wanted to ensure that the panels and the inverter I had were made by a reputable company, and had some kind of warranty.

Paying less money for a system that breaks and then cannot be fixed is not a good deal, in my mind.

Many panels have a 10 year warranty, however a few have a 25 year warranty (for performance and the product itself). We all know that things like to break the second they are outside the warranty, and I don’t want to have to replace the system and buy a whole other set of panels in 10 years.

Also, panels lose efficiency every year, and conventional ones may operate at only 80% in 25 years. Better ones guarantee higher returns.

Good inverters also come with a warranty: the longer, the more reliable you’d expect the inverter to be.

My solar system: what I chose

I chose a 3kW system (with 3.96kW of panels and a 3kW inverter). I think I could have made do with slightly less (maybe 2.5kW), but my roof is north-west, not true north, and being able to run the air-conditioner in summer is a privilege I’m looking forward to.

The panels have a 25 year performance and product warranty and the inverter has a 12 year warranty. With the savings made on my electricity bill, the system will have paid for itself in 6 years or so.

A top-end 3kW system actually cost the same as a mid-range 5kW system. Whilst it seems tempting to go for bigger, I knew that system was more than I needed and half the panels would only make electricity for a few months of the year (they’d have to go on the back roof). Choosing a system that’s guaranteed for 25 years (although I may have to replace the inverter) was more appealing.

For those interested, the company I used to install my solar system is Infinite Energy (the link is a refer-a-friend link, but I wasn’t paid or given any kind of discount to write this post). As I’ve only had my system for 2 days, I can’t speak about the longevity of the system (yet!) but to date, they’ve been helpful, efficient and quick in getting everything set up. So yes, based on what I know I’d recommend them.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Do you have solar? How do you find it works for you? Are you thinking of getting solar? Is anything is putting you off (aside from saving up the initial cost)? How do the feed-in tariffs work (or not) where you live? Any other thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

I Saw it in the Stars (A Guide to Energy Efficiency)

With new houses comes the need for new appliances. At least, in our case it has. The last thing I wanted to do was rush out and buy a whole heap of new stuff for our new home, but we did need a new fridge and a new washing machine.

…Our old fridge (purchased in 2002 by my in-laws) was wildly inefficient. It was far too big for the two of us and guzzled energy like it was going out of fashion. Despite this, we would have (reluctantly) put it in storage for two months until our new home was ready. However, our kitchen has been designed (somewhat cunningly, with energy efficiency in mind) to only fit a smaller fridge, and our old one was far too wide. We sold it to some students in a four-person house share – a better use for a fridge this size.

…Our old washing machine (purchased second-hand via Gumtree in 2012) was life-expired. It left dirty marks on our clean laundry. The seal was covered in black slime which did not come clean no matter how much vinegar or bicarb I used, nor how many 95°C washes I ran – and a replacement was the price we paid for the machine. I’d have happily paid if it was just the seal (I’d rather repair than replace), but in addition the tubing needed replacing, the electrics didn’t work properly, it had developed a small leak and it’s possible the bearings were going (hence the dirty clothes). Our ex-neighbour is looking after it until I take it to pieces and recycle the parts – I’m particularly keen on doing something fun with the stainless steel drum.

I was keen to get second-hand appliances, but my husband wanted new and energy efficient ones. He argued our old washing machine was a good example of how second-hand doesn’t always work out. There were very few fridges of the size we need available on Gumtree. We could choose the most energy efficient options and look after them properly.

In the end, my husband won. I did feel guilty that we bought new, but choosing quality and energy efficiency means they should last a long time and use less power overall. Whether this was the best choice, only time will tell. I must confess, being able to do a load of laundry that actually comes out clean has also dissipated some guilt.

Choosing an Energy-Efficient Fridge

I found it very confusing that no matter how big the fridge was, the energy star rating was around 3.5 stars. Fridge sizes began at 250 litres, and went all the way up to 850 litres, and yet the stars were practically the same. How could that be?

It turns out that under the star system, fridges are compared with other fridges of a similar size. They do not compare all fridges with one another. Crazy, right? This means the star rating is fairly meaningless on its own. What is far more important when choosing a fridge (or any electronic appliance) is to look at the actual energy rating. All appliances should state their energy use in kWh (which stands for kilowatt hours) over a year.

(If you have an old fridge and want to work out how much energy it uses, you can use an energy monitor. I’ve written about how you can use an energy monitor to work out consumption and cost in a previous post, when I found out that my previous fridge used 639 kWh a year. That is a huge amount!)

The most energy efficient fridge we could find that was big enough for the two of us but fit the space (600mm wide) has an energy rating of 284 kWh per year. That’s 225% less energy than our previous fridge. Interestingly, it wasn’t the smallest fridge on display but one of the newest models. Most models in the size range were 300 – 350 kWh, and some were as high as 450 kWh.

At 284kWh per year, our new fridge will use 0.78kWh per day.

Fridge Energy Efficency Star Rating Treading My Own Path

In 2014 I learned that most domestic fridges in wealthy nations use more energy than the total energy consumption of an average citizen in many African nations. It inspired me to find out the energy consumption of my fridge and write the post My Fridge vs the People of Africa. I made a graph showing the energy consumption of citizens of various African nations, and the energy use of my fridge and the fridge of the guy whose article prompted me to investigate. I’ve updated the graph to show where our new fridge sits in the graph:

My Fridge vs the People of Africa Updated 2016

My old fridge is the red column, and my new fridge is the green column. The six yellow columns represent the total electricity consumption of an average citizen in each of 6 African nations in 2010. (The two blue columns relate to the 2014 post which I’ve linked to above.)

Choosing a Waterwise and Energy-Efficient Washing Machine

Washing machines have two differentials to consider: electricity use and water use. They are easier to compare than fridges because they are all relatively the same size, but rather than looking at stars, it is still better to look at the numbers.

Energy consumption is listed per year, in kWh and it makes assumptions about the frequency and type of wash that will be used. To aid comparison, all machines compare regular 40º C cycles and assume they will be used once a day. We  run our machine about 3 times a week, usually on a cold or 30ºC setting, so we would expect our energy consumption to be less than the quoted amount. If you use your washing machine every day and run hotter washes, the energy consumption would be higher.

Water consumption is quoted per wash for a regular program, not per year.

Washing Machine Star Energy Ratings

The machine we chose had high energy efficiency and low water use, but it was expensive. It was double the price of the next best performing brand. It uses 180kWh per year, and 60 litres per wash (compared to 265kWh per annum and 72 litres per wash for the cheaper brand). I confess, this was not actually the best performing machine on sale, it was second-best. The same brand had a better model that only used 50 litres per wash, but cost an extra $300 and our budget simply didn’t stretch that far.

It wasn’t just the energy and water efficiency that convinced us to switch, it was the design. Having had various issues with our previous model we were keen to choose something that would last. The brand we chose has a great reputation for long-lasting machines, and a service centre close by. It uses minimal electronics (an issue with our previous model) and it has a stainless steel rim rather than a rubber seal around the door. Rubber seals always accumulate grime and dirt, they are tricky to clean and expensive to replace (and you need to know what you are doing).

Having read the manual thoroughly (because believe me, this machine is going to be maintained well and will last a lifetime!) I discovered there is a helpful table which tells the user exactly how much energy and water each wash uses. The quick wash uses the least amount of energy and water and cleans surprisingly well. I did not realise that Wool + Hand Wash settings use so much water!

Washing Program Energy and Water Use Guidelines

I don’t know if all washing machine instruction manuals contain this kind of information, but it is so useful that I hope they do! Some longer programs use less energy than shorter ones (which I wouldn’t have guessed) and hand washing uses far more water than I imagined too.

Choosing a Waterwise and Energy-Efficient Dishwasher

Fans of dishwashers often state that dishwashers are very water efficient and use less water than washing the dishes by hand. Having spent a weekend looking at appliances, I can tell you that the most water efficient models use less than 15 litres per wash. It is estimated we use around 30 litres washing up in the kitchen sink, so yes, dishwashers do appear to use less water.

However they also use energy, and they are not particularly energy efficient. A dishwasher with a current 3.5 energy star rating will use around 0.75kWh per wash. Run it every day, and that’s around 275kWh per year. Then there’s the noise, and the biggest one of all – the energy needed to mine / refine / manufacture / transport the appliance – plus it’s another appliance to dispose of at the end of its life.

Despite my husband’s wishes, we won’t be getting a dishwasher. It’s an appliance we simply don’t need. We will be practicing mindfulness and doing the dishes. Well, I say we, but I suspect it will be me. I’m okay with that ; )

Now I’d love to hear from you! Would you have chosen new or second-hand? What factors influence your decisions? If you’re part of a more-than-one-person household, how do you find consensus with differing opinions? Have you any great experiences of buying second-hand, terrible experiences of buying new – or vice versa? Any stories or wisdom to share? What’s your record for the longest-running appliance you’ve owned or used? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]

How to Read Your Gas Bill + How I Saved $300 a Year

I have a confession. I actually enjoy receiving our power bills. It’s because I’m a bit of a nerd and I like to see how much energy (and money!) we’re saving by being as energy-efficient as possible. Today we received a new gas bill in the post, but when I ripped open the envelope my heart almost stopped because I saw the graph:

Graph on gas bill

Energy usage graph on gas bill

How on earth had our gas usage skyrocketed that much?

Before panic ensued, I checked our average daily consumption in units. This information is always included on your bill. It turns out that we hadn’t used many more units than the previous bill after all. Phew!

Gas bills for new flat

For this billing period we used 4.40 units per day, compared to 4.12 units per day on the previous bill.

The new bill confirms that we’re using less than half the energy we used at the previous flat. That sounds pretty impressive. This works out to be a saving of $300, which, I think you’ll agree, is even more impressive. So what is the secret?

First up, I’m just going to explain how to read your gas bill. It’s vital if you want to know how much energy you use and how much it’s costing you! It also means you can compare your usage with similar households to find out if you’re actually paying more than you should be. (Extra bonus –  knowing how to read your bill also prevents heart-attacks when you receive misleading graphs!)

A Quick Guide to Reading Your Energy Bill

  • The first thing to check is that the bill you’ve received correlates with your meter! (This isn’t likely to be a problem unless you’ve just moved, but it’s worth mentioning.)
  • Secondly, check if the bill is based on a meter reading or an estimate. If the bill is estimated, the amount may be very different to what you’ve actually used. You can usually contact your energy company to give an accurate reading and receive a new bill.
  • Be wary of graphs! The energy companies can use data to manipulate what you see. The reason my graph had such a huge change was because I moved mid-way through a billing cycle. The first bill I received was for 44 days. The second was for 89 days. It stands to reason that my second bill will cost twice as much as the first bill – it’s for double the amount of days!
  • Look for the average daily consumption, measured in units. That tells you how many units you are using every day. Energy is priced per unit, so the cost to you is the amount your company charges per unit multiplied by the number of units you have used.
  • If you can’t find your average daily consumption, it’s easy to calculate by finding the total number of energy units used and dividing by the number of days in the billing period. For my latest bill I used 391 units over 89 days, which is 4.39 units per day.

How I Saved $300 a Year in Gas Bills

This isn’t the part where I tell you I switched providers, and offer you a nifty little affiliate link like you’ve no doubt seen a gazillion times before. Nope. Sadly the gas company in Perth has a monopoly on the supply, so I’m stuck with these guys for now. I saved that much money without switching providers. I’ll tell you how I did it.

I moved house.

Not to a smaller house. I moved to a bigger house.

I moved to a bigger house with an additional demand for gas over the previous house (this place has a gas oven; the previous place had an electric one).

I might also add that the flat I moved to is in the same complex, made from the same materials and with the same insulation (or lack of).

Despite all of things thing, my gas bills have halved. See?

The daily energy use at my old flat was between 9 and 11.49 per day compared to less than 5 in the new flat.

The daily energy use at my old flat was between 8.9 and 11.49 per day compared to less than 5 in the new flat.

Do you know what made all that difference?

This guy.

New Boiler

This 5 1/2 star energy rating boiler that doesn’t have a pilot light meant my gas bills halved…without me doing a thing!

The boiler.

Compared with this guy:

Boiler with a pilot light

Meet Mr Inefficiency: Boiler with a pilot light

I did everything in our old flat to reduce our gas use (that’s why the unit consumption dropped a little during the year), but there was one thing I couldn’t get away from. The pilot light. That boiler burns gas even when it’s just sitting there. Even when it’s 40ºC day and you really don’t want any kind of heat at all. Our new boiler, by comparison, only burns gas when it’s ignited.

That’s all it’s taken to cut our bill by $300.

We didn’t install the boiler ourselves, it came with the rental, and in that regard we’ve been lucky. However, it has also highlighted to me the importance of fuel-efficient appliances, not just for the emissions they produce but also the cost savings they provide.

You may not be able to change your gas boiler, if you’re unfortunate enough to be stuck with an inefficient one (but if you are, here’s one idea for reducing how much energy it costs you). There are, however, plenty of other appliances that use energy that you do have control over. Think about all the other energy drains in the home: the heating, lighting, washing machine, dryer, the vacuum cleaner, small kitchen appliances, fridge and freezer, and other electrical equipment. Next time you need to change something, don’t just consider the initial cost, because in the long term it may end up costing more than you think.

Are you a homeowner who has installed energy efficient appliances, or are you a renter who is stuck with rubbishy inefficient junk that your landlord installed to save himself a buck or two? Are there any other appliances you’ve switched to energy saving and know have saved you money and cut your bills? Do you have any tips or experiences to share? I always love to hear from you so don’t forget to leave a comment!

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]

The Future of Waste

What would you expect from a talk about the future of waste hosted by a city that’s proud of its sustainability credentials, promotes zero waste, is working on a program to divert all organic waste from landfill, and is trying to push through a local ban on plastic bags? You’d expect a discussion on reducing waste at source, closed loops systems, community education programmes, better recycling facilities and the role of entrepreneurs in repurposing waste, surely?

You certainly wouldn’t expect to hear the case for building new incinerators as the solution to the waste problem, would you?!

Here’s the flyer:

Waste Forum Freo Event Poster

Looking at the poster, I certainly didn’t. I was expecting an interesting discussion. What I didn’t know beforehand was that both Phoenix Energy and New Energy have applications in Perth for constructing incinerators, in Kwinana and Rockingham respectively. Not only that, but the Major of Fremantle has just come back from a trip to Japan to visit these plants, and was clearly impressed by the technology.

So what was billed as a talk about the future of waste for Perth and Fremantle became a talk about the role and benefits of incinerators, and descended into a slanging match between the pro-incinerator PR guys and the anti-incinerator community members. One of the original speakers had cancelled at short notice, and was replaced with Lee Bell from the National Toxics Network, who made the discussion far more balanced than it otherwise might have been as he was able to talk credibly about the issues incinerators have caused (and continue to cause) globally.

Before I watched Trashed, I had some idea that incinerators were bad. After that, my views were very firm and clear.

Even so, it wasn’t meant to be a discussion about incinerators…it was meant to be a discussion about the future of waste, and how to make it more sustainable! I wasn’t there to be convinced of the need for incinerators, I was there to hear ideas and solutions, new ways of doing things, how to make this idea of zero waste a reality. How to educate the public and look at changing behaviours. Positive solutions that don’t encourage wasting resources by turning them into (toxic) dust, but return them into useful production.

The Kwinana waste-to-energy plant (the more politically preferable name for an incinerator) is going to cost $380 million to build. Imagine if all that money, that $380 million, was invested in real green energy technology such as solar and wind, sustainable cradle-to-cradle product design enterprises, community waste education programmes and imaginative waste entrepreneurs who repurpose waste?!

Instead, the plan for the future is to take all that material, and turn it into (toxic) ash.

That makes me sad.

Is this really the future of waste?

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]

My Fridge vs The People of Africa

A few weeks ago I came across an interesting graph showing the energy consumption of some guy’s fridge. The owner of the fridge was Todd Moss, a senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Development. He purchased this new fridge for his single-person household, and was shocked when he compared the energy use of his fridge with the energy use of an average citizen in each of six African nations. He made a graph to show just how much more energy his fridge was consuming.

Here’s the graph (you can read his blog post here):

Source: Todd Moss |Centre for Global Development

Source: Todd Moss | Centre for Global Development

I think it’s pretty shocking that a single appliance uses this much energy. Imagine how much energy he uses when you add in all those other appliances! It got me wondering…how much energy does my own fridge use?

Ours is a 400 litre fridge which was given to us by my boyfriend’s parents when they bought a new one. It was originally purchased in 2002 when energy efficiency ratings weren’t so much on the radar. We were pretty sure it uses a lot of energy – but how much?

When we moved house our neighbour left her old fridge behind as she no longer needed it. At 180 litres it is significantly smaller than the other one, so we decided to try it out and see if we could manage with the reduced size.

Big Fridge Small Fridge

Our old fridge is the bigger one on the right (around 400litres), and the smaller one was our neighbours (around 180litres).

In addition to trying it out for size, I decided it would be an interesting exercise to measure the energy consumption and running cost of both fridges, and borrowed an energy meter from a friend.

How to Use a Home Energy Meter

The meter I used was a Power-Mate PM10AHD. You plug it into the wall, and plug your appliance or device into the meter, and you can read energy use via the screen.

Power Mate Energy MonitorWith a fridge or an appliance that runs continuously, you need to wait for 24 hours before reading the data as the energy use will fluctuate throughout the day.

The meter measures a few things, but the interesting ones are power (measured in Watts), time (hours) and energy (kWh – which means kilo-watts per hour).

It is possible to calculate how much an appliance is costing you to run if you know what your energy company charges per unit. (You can find this information printed on your bill.) My energy company charges me 23.55 cents per unit (a unit of energy is kWh), plus a carbon component of 2.36 cents per unit, which means I pay 25.91 cents per unit of energy I consume.

The meter I used had a handy function for inputting how much my energy company charge ($/kWh), and then it calculates the energy cost per hour, day, quarter and year for me. It’s a pretty simple calculation though: energy used for one hour x cost for one unit will give you the cost for 1 hour. Multiply by 24 and you have the energy cost for 1 day; multiply this by 7 for the cost of one week and so on.

The Results:

The Small Fridge:

The small fridge uses 0.0375kW per hour of energy.
The energy use per day is 0.90kWh.
The energy use per year is 328kWh.

The cost for running the fridge for a day is 23 cents. For a quarter it costs $21.27 and for a year it costs $85.11.

The Big Fridge:

The big fridge uses 0.0728kW per hour of energy.
The energy use per day is 1.75kWh.
The energy use per year is 639kWh.

The cost of running the fridge for a day is 45 cents. For a quarter it costs $41.32 and for a year it costs $165.29.

The Difference:

The big fridge costs an extra $80 per year to run at current energy prices!

Here’s a graph showing how my two fridges compare with Todd’s fridge and the 6 African nations:

My fridge uses more energy than the citizens of 6 African nations combined : (

My fridge uses more energy than the average citizens of these 6 African nations, and almost as much as the energy of all six average citizens combined : (

The smaller fridge still uses more energy than an average citizen in each of these countries, but is far more modest than the big fridge, for which the energy consumption is ridiculous. I’m quite embarassed that I have such a power-puzzling monster in my kitchen. Whilst it’s a big fridge, it’s not unusually big for Australia and plenty of people have double-door fridges which guzzle even more energy – not that I’m trying to justify it! My one consolation over Todd’s fridge is at least ours serves two people.

I would like to tell you that we decided to keep the small fridge, but it was just a bit too small. The way we shop, with our fortnightly vegetable box delivery, and my constant baking and making-enough-leftovers-for-the-rest-of-the-week way of cooking, it just didn’t quite work. The minimalist in me is not impressed. We know the big one is too big, but it still works and for the short-term we’re resigned to keeping it.

We sold the smaller fridge on Gumtree (with our old neighbour’s permission); they guy who bought it wanted a second fridge to go in the garage…as a beer fridge. Yep, a separate fridge just for his beer. I wonder what the people in those African nations would think of that?

Have you ever checked the energy consumption of your electric appliances? Were you surprised with the results? Or have you never even thought about it until now? Leave a comment; I’d love to hear your thoughts!

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]

Choosing Electricity that’s Greener (Sort Of)

One of the first things we did when we knew we were moving was to revisit our energy bills, and look into green power. Now you might be thinking, surely we were already buying green power? But actually, no, we weren’t.

When I lived in England I had both my electricity and gas supplied by Ecotricity. Ecotricity describe themselves as Britain’s leading green energy supplier, and when they launched in 1996 they were the world’s first green electricity company (you can read more about their history here). They supply UK households with electricity made from wind and solar, and they are looking into using wave power too. They are also looking into producing green gasmills that use renewable sources to make gas (such as organic material and algae). They have planning permission to build their first green gasmill, but in the meantime they promise that all gas supplied will not come from shale, meaning it is frack free.

Moving from the UK to Western Australia, however, meant I no longer had this option. In fact, I had no options at all. Energy supply is heavily regulated here, meaning there is only one electricity company and one gas company. They don’t even offer a range of tariffs. The electricity provider, Synergy, is actually owned by the Western Australian government and they offer one plan – the (uninspiringly titled) Home Plan.

Alinta (the gas supplier) don’t offer any green options at all, but Synergy offer “Green Energy”. It may sound good, but we’re not talking solar power or renewables From Synergy as such. We’re talking certificates.

As Synergy tell me on their website: “When you choose to purchase EasyGreen or NaturalPower, Synergy will use your premiums to purchase renewable energy certificates (RECs) from nationally accredited GreenPower renewable energy sources. The RECs purchased will match the amount of your EasyGreen or NaturalPower contribution.”

My understanding of what this means: Synergy will continue to burn fossil fuels to produce my electricity, but they’ll spend the extra that I’m willing to pay on pieces of paper (RECs) that “prove” that Synergy are being green (after all, they’re getting a certificate – what says proof more than that?). They get these certificates by giving my money to other companies who produce green energy (according to this list Synergy don’t own any green power generators themselves). These pieces of paper are issued by the government, and Synergy are buying these certificates with my money – so effectively I’m just reimbursing the government and Synergy is getting the credit. I wonder what the government does with the revenue from these certificates…dredge the Great Barrier Reef to sell more coal?

Maybe I’m too cynical. Maybe I’ve misunderstood the scheme. Have a look at the explanation GreenPower have on their website for how the scheme works:

How GreenPower WorksCould it be any more complicated and confusing?! I have no understanding of what this means either, but I’m not getting good vibes from this diagram! Seems like too much regulation and too little action to me!

In spite of my distrust for these certification schemes, I’ve signed up for NaturalPower anyway. Why, if I’m so skeptical?

  • It may not be Ecotricity, but its something, and something is better than nothing.
  • I need to make the best of what options are available to me.
  • I want to send a message that renewables are something that I support, and something that I want to see more of.
  • I want to put my money where my mouth is. I don’t have a roof to install my own solar panels (ah, one day…) so this is how I can contribute.

The NaturalPower scheme that Synergy offers means we can contribute up to 100% of our consumption to purchase RECs. We’ve opted to contribute the full 100%. We use 5 units of electricity every day, which will mean our bill will go up $1.76 a week.

Green Power Square Image

Now I don’t like paying more for energy than I have to… who does?! But I also believe in using our money to shape the kind of world we want to live in. I’m happy to pay the green premium, but I still want to pay as little as possible. In order to get my bill down I need to look at my electricity usage and see if there’s any way we can reduce it further. We’re already pretty good in this department, but a fresh look at everything won’t hurt! I’ve got a blog post coming soon on ways to reduce your electricity consumption in the home, so keep an eye out over the coming weeks.

My thought for the day: Don’t let the pursuit of perfection hold you back from taking action. Synergy’s NaturalPower scheme is definitely not perfect, but at least it’s a step in the right direction…

Right, I’m off to dream of off-grid living and solar panels!

What do you think about green energy tariffs? Do you think they’re a scam or do you think they’re helping renewable energy become more mainstream and accepted? Have I totally misunderstood the REC scheme?! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]

The Age of Sustainable Development

On Monday afternoon I went to a lecture about The Age of Sustainable Development. I’m normally fairly skeptical of these men-in-suits type events, but this one caught my eye. It’s good to get out there occasionally and hear what the men-in-suits have to say.

The lecture was by Professor Jeffrey Sachs, a Professor of Economics and Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York. Actually, Wikipedia tells me that he has a whole lot of other impressive credentials, including Special Advisor to the UN on the Millennium Development Goals, Director of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network, and has twice been named one of Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World.


Before the lecture began, a video was played entitled “Sustainability at Curtin University” (the WA university hosting the lecture) which I found rather uninspiring. It had the familiar messages about sustainability that make me cringe when I hear them: that sustainability means value for money for industry; that sustainability innovation means efficiency, which passes on to the mining industry; and that we can invent and innovate our way out of the pending crises of climate change, resource depletion, water shortages and extreme weather conditions.

It’s not that I disagree that technology and science have important roles to play. I just felt that the underlying message was “business as usual”, and in my opinion, no amount of streamlining and resourcefulness is going to make up for the fact that we still expect infinite growth, and we still live on a finite planet.

I’m glad to say the lecture was far more inspiring. It was refreshing to hear Professor Jeffery Sachs, one of the men-in-suits, stand up on stage and say that we can’t have unlimited growth on a finite planet, that climate change is real, it is happening NOW, we have our backs against the wall and we need to act immediately.

Of course, it was also quite alarming.

Professor Sachs said that America is more divided than at any time in history – meaning the gap between the rich and poor is widening, and inequality is widening. He referred to a book entitled Affluence and Influence: Economic Inequality and Political Power in America by Martin Gilens, who found that the opinions of the bottom 90% of people in America had no impact on policy making in America.

Only the top 10%, the really rich, have any real influence over government.

I imagine it’s a similar case in many other places. The Australian budget was announced last week, and it has been described as the harshest and most unpopular federal budget in two nearly decades. The main beneficiaries were the super rich and big business; election promises were broken, and people are angry.

Governments, Professor Sachs concluded, aren’t going to lead the way. They’ve been talking about sustainable development for over 20 years, he said, and they’re still talking about it, but they aren’t doing anything. Events are changing a lot faster than our institutions.

The solution he offered: universities are going to have to lead the way. Young people (who generally “get” the sustainability message more than older generations, he said) are going to have to lead the way. We need massive energy efficiency; we need electrification of vehicles and heating. We need to make carbon sequestration work on a massive scale, or we need to stop burning coal. We need a strategy. Carbon taxes aren’t strategies, they are tools.

It’s easy to sit in lectures like this and feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the problems the world faces. The world is a big place, and it’s easy to feel small and helpless. But overall, I felt that Professor Sachs had a positive message: yes, we are facing a challenge, and yes, the government isn’t ready to anything about it, but we can still make change happen.

It is reassuring to know that some of the men-in-suits, these people with authority, power and influence, actually understand… and not only that, they are doing something about it. Professor Sachs is touring Australia as part of a global project for the UN trying to map strategies for countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions significantly, in a way that will keep global warming below 2 degrees (considered the limit of safe rises). In September, New York is hosting a World Leaders Climate Meeting; an attempt to build momentum towards December 2015 climate negotiations in Paris. Professor Sachs thinks the Paris meeting is our ”last chance” for the world to keep global warming below 2 degrees.

To me, the lecture felt like a call to action. We can’t just sit back and watch our governments continue with “business as usual”. No way!

“Achieving sustainable development will be the great challenge of the coming generation.” ~Professor Jeffrey Sachs

Best get to it then…there’s no time to waste!

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]

Twenty-four trees

So we’re off to Thailand in just over a week for a long-overdue rest and holiday. We’re flying there. You don’t need to tell me that flying is not a very sustainable form of transport. When I lived in England I was very disapproving of flying. Then I met my partner, an Australian, and moved out here, and it changed my perspective a little.

The first thing I had to reconsider was that wherever in the world we lived, one half of our family would be the other side of the world. Neither of us are prepared to never see our families again in order to try to combat climate change. Have you heard of food miles? Well there’s another concept, called “love miles”, which is the distance that we need to travel in order to see our friends and family and loved ones.

Before flying existed, or until it became affordable for the masses, most people would marry and remain within their communities and wouldn’t need to travel very far. I’m sure in the future, indeed I hope in the future, that flying will become so unaffordable or undesirable that this becomes the case once again, as people re-embrace their local communities. In the meantime, it is very cheap and easy to fly anywhere in the world and for most people, our love miles are pretty high.

The other thing I discovered when I moved here is that Australia is very far away from everything (and everyone) else. Even the other side of the same country is a few hours by flying, or a few days by driving. Having lived all my life in Europe, I have been spoiled. I could travel by boat or by train, or even drive, and reach numerous different countries in a matter of hours. I didn’t need to fly to see ancient ruins, buzzing modern cities, and beautiful rural landscapes, or to visit snow-capped mountains or golden beaches. I love experiencing different cultures; it makes me feel more connected to the world and travelling inspires me. In Europe it’s at your fingertips; here in Australia, it is not.

So I’ve come to accept that, living in Australia, I will probably need flying in my life, at least in the short-term.

What does this mean for the environment?

I was wondering, how much carbon will I be generating by flying to Thailand? And what can I do about it? I plugged all the info into a carbon calculator. My flight will generate 1 tonne of C02. Each way. And I’m going with my partner. So we’re generating 4 tonnes of C02, according to the calculator.

The website suggests that to offset this amount of carbon, I can pay $90, which will plant 24 trees.

I’m not really a fan of carbon offsetting. I feel like it’s a capitalist response to an environmental problem – paying money to alleviate guilt, or buying your way out of a situation. I feel like it benefits the wealthy, who can afford to pay to offset their travel more than others. I’m not completely convinced that it is the best way to help the environment. It seems so…detached. I have heard stories and worked at places that are involved with tree planting and investigated carbon trading, and my experience is that these organisations are committed to plant trees irrespective of whether they get funding by these schemes, although of course the money helps. But does it actually mean more trees get planted? Or does it mean that organisations can free up other funds to spend elsewhere? These carbon trading schemes are often run as businesses, too – so not all the money is going straight to tree-planting. I don’t like that aspect, either.

I may feel like these schemes are a little flawed, but that’s not to say that they aren’t still worthwhile. For people who are cash-rich, or time-poor, they offer a solution. And they’re making the concept of offsetting your flights easy and available to the general public. But I’m not going to be paying $90. I am, however, thinking about these 24 trees. I want to do something which I feel more accountable to. Ideally I’d like to plant my own trees. I’m wondering if there’s a local tree-planting scheme that I can get involved with (either when I’m in Thailand or back home). If that’s not possible, I hope to find a not-for-profit group to donate to where the money will go directly to local tree planting – trees that I can see.

Of course, not flying is still the best option, and I don’t intend to to be flying regularly. We don’t intend to go back to the UK every year, for example. I’ve also made a commitment not to use budget airlines, because I think that they are even more unsustainable than the bigger airlines. I don’t think flying should be cheap, and if governments didn’t allow airlines to avoid paying tax and fuel duty, it wouldn’t be. But as I now realise that I will be taking more flights over the coming years than I have in the past, I need to come up with some way of mitigating my cost to the environment in the best way that I can.

Starting with twenty-four trees.

An exciting letter in the post…

I’ve been excitedly waiting for the gas bill for a couple of weeks now, and yesterday it finally arrived! Yep, you read that right. I was excited by the thought of receiving the gas bill.

Three months ago we decided to be pro-active about reducing our gas consumption because we realised our gas bill was unusually high for such a small flat, and being conscious of our environmental footprint, we decided to do something about it. Living in a rental, we couldn’t do much about the rubbishy cheap inefficient boiler with the gas-wasting pilot light that the landlord had installed. What we could do, and what we did, was reduce the pilot light to the lowest setting and lower the temperature setting so that we no longer need to add any cold water when we shower. Read more

A simple way to use less gas (and save money)?

Last week we received our quarterly gas bill. Normally I just groan and pay the money that’s demanded, without really thinking any more about it. (In the UK the gas companies estimate the meter readings so I’d always go check to see if it was actually right, and if it wasn’t I’d call them and ask them to adjust the bill, but here in Australia they actually read the meter before sending you the bill, so there’s no need to double check.)

However, a couple of weeks ago we discovered that our gas usage (and hence our gas bill) is surprisingly high. Have you ever looked at your actual daily consumption? According to our bill, we use 11.49 units a day. That didn’t mean anything to us until we were able to compare  with some other bills, and we found that ours was much higher than others who live in bigger houses and appear to use far more gas.

gasbilljpgWhat are we using gas for in our home?

We have four gas stove tops, but the oven is electric. Our water is heated by gas (although not the washing machine) but we’re pretty good at having 4 minute showers. And that’s it. There’s no gas heating, no other gas appliances. I do a fair bit of cooking, but still, why is it so high?

With the hob, I always put lids on my saucepans, and I always use the smallest ring I can, so there’s not much I can change, other than cooking less.

Which means it must be the water.

Ever since we went to that water workshop and dismissed water as not particularly important (perhaps motivating is a better word), we’ve been plagued by situations that have made us notice how much we take it for granted. I wrote this post about how the next day our water was disconnected for the entire day. Over the following two weeks it was disconnected twice more, both without any warning. Apparently the problem has finally been resolved, but there’s nothing like being without water to make you realise how important it is.

Back to the gas. We are using gas to heat the water we use to shower, to wash our hands and to do the washing up. We don’t feel like we’re using excessive amounts of hot water, so one issue must be how hot we’re heating the water. The thermostat.

To make the shower a comfortable temperature, we turn on the hot water, then add cold water to get it to the right temperature. We’re heating the water using gas, and then cooling it straight back down again. How ridiculous is that?!

Prompted by the gas bill, this weekend we decided to investigate the water boiler. We live in a rental, and had to get a new boiler installed three months after we moved in when the old one exploded. (Literally.) Being a rental, the landlord installed the cheapest one possible. Interestingly, our gas bill jumped up after the new boiler was installed. At the time we assumed it was because it was winter, but now we’ve got a year’s worth of statements we can see it’s definitely the new boiler. This one has a pilot light, whereas the old one didn’t, and pilot lights burn gas, and are not energy-efficient. (If you’re interested in the physics of it all, check this out!) We can’t change our boiler, but we can change the settings to try to reduce our gas usage.

boiler1When the cover’s taken off, there’s two adjustable knobs. One is for the pilot light, and the other is for the water temperature.

boiler2That big blue flame in the middle is the pilot light. The slide-y knob below it adjusts the pilot light – supposedly. We slid it as far to the left as it would go. It didn’t appear to make any difference, but hopefully it did something. It makes sense to keep the pilot light as low as possible, so it burns as little gas as possible.

The round knob at the bottom is the temperature setting. We turned that down and then tested the temperature of the water in the house, so it was low enough that the water was still hot, but there was no need to add cold water.

I couldn’t believe how much gas is used when the boiler is fired up to heat the water.

boiler3Having seen it in all its blazing glory, we’ve also agreed not to fire the boiler up unnecessarily. No post-dinner, pre-washing-up rinsing of dishes in hot water. No running the hot tap too long.

Hopefully our adjustments will save us some gas, and hence some money. It will be interesting to see if it makes a difference (and how much of a difference) when the next gas bill comes in three month’s time.

If you’ve got a gas boiler, have you checked your thermostat recently?

[leadpages_leadbox leadbox_id=1429a0746639c5] [/leadpages_leadbox]