Habits help save energy

Looking to reduce his home’s ecological footprint, North Vancouver resident Doug Horn turned to solar power. But solar panels aren’t cheap and remain a relatively inefficient means of producing electricity, especially during the winter. As Horn learned, to get the most out of solar panels—or any energy source—the first thing a homeowner should look at is conservation.

“Putting solar panels in was really almost a stupid idea,” Horn told the Georgia Straight in a telephone interview. “When I was ready to put the solar panels on, 90 percent of the good that I was doing was already done just by increasing efficiency.”

Horn said that by taking simple steps like upgrading energy-inefficient appliances and making sure lights that weren’t in use were turned off, he was able to reduce his home’s energy consumption to roughly 90 kilowatt-hours a month.

According to B.C. Hydro spokesperson Simi Heer, the average British Columbian uses 10,000 to 11,000 kilowatt-hours of energy a year, or 10 times what Horn said he uses.

Heer said that in order to create the kind of “conservation culture” Horn has adopted, B.C. Hydro recently launched Team Power Smart, which encourages all B.C. Hydro customers to reduce their energy consumption by 10 percent. The initiative is part of the B.C. Energy Plan, which has set a target of satisfying 50 percent of B.C. Hydro’s new electricity needs through conservation by 2020.

“We know that some customers, through making some simple changes, can even reduce anywhere from 20 to 30 percent,” Heer said. “But at least 10 percent is definitely achievable.”

According to Heer, a good place to start conserving energy is home heating. Inefficient windows can leak one-third of a home’s heat, she said. So if you’re remodelling or building a new home, installing insulated windows is strongly recommended. Similarly, Heer continued, people should be aware of air leaks and use caulking around doors, windows, and electrical outlets. Draft-proofing can reduce heat loss by five to 10 percent, she said.

Another way to save on heating is to use a programmable thermostat that automatically reduces a home’s temperature when heat is not needed, such as when the house is empty or everyone is asleep. This can reduce electricity consumption by a further 2.5 percent, according to Heer.

Canada uses more energy per person than almost every other country on Earth, Heer noted, and it’s not because the rest of the world has better windows. For Canadians in particular, behavioural changes can result in a significant reduction in energy use.

Good, energy-efficient habits are simple enough for kids to learn. Laura Iwan has already taught her children about conservation, and they’re only two and four years old.

“If somebody leaves the lights on, they’ll say, ”˜Hey, turn off the light! You’re using our solar power up,’ ” Iwan said.

Like Horn, the Iwans were considering installing solar panels on their Burnaby home around the time they started conserving energy.

Iwan said that through practices like hanging clothes to dry and unplugging the computer when no one is using it, her family saves about 300 kilowatt-hours of electricity a year.

The greatest source of energy savings, Iwan said, is reducing phantom loads.

Today, many electronics do not fully turn off with the simple flick of a button. Computers, printers, stereo systems, cable boxes, and cellphone chargers are just a few of the devices that need to be unplugged before they will stop using electricity.

Iwan’s solution was to plug as many electronics as possible into power bars and train the kids to turn them off when the devices are not in use.

If there’s one potential source of disappointment for those looking to save energy, Iwan warned, it’s the lack of a financial incentive. She explained that, in B.C., electricity is so cheap that even a major reduction in energy use won’t necessarily translate into a significantly smaller utility bill.

“[Energy conservation] is about the environment,” Iwan said. “We believe in it, and if you talk the talk, you should walk the walk.”

You can follow Travis Lupick on Twitter at twitter.com/tlupick.