Clean-energy activists Cameron Diaz and Tom Hanks made “going green” sexy a decade before the world realised that electric cars were useful not only for driving to the milk bar but as an alternative power source.
Today, however, conversations about “getting off the grid” are de rigeur at city dinner parties.
But those in the trade say you don’t need to spend a fortune on green technologies to increase your efficiency and cut your energy bills.
Glenn Platt leads the CSIRO’s research on energy efficiency and innovation. He says consumers can save more money in the short term simply by changing their habits to use less energy in the home.
No warm beer
“But it doesn’t need to mean cold showers and warm beers,” he says.
About 6 per cent of a household’s energy bill goes to standby power – the electricity used to keep things hot or cold while they aren’t being used.
“Focus on things like water systems and air-conditioners. Turn the temperature down on your hot water boiler and add less cold when you shower or bath. Stop drafts to keep the warm or cool air inside. It’s not as sexy as solar panels, but it is incredibly effective.”
Platt says a change in behaviour could soon reap direct financial rewards as “energy service” companies build businesses around paying consumers to hand over control of high-usage appliances.
“On a hot day, if you have a house that runs the aircon all day, you’re paid to let the electricity company turn it down for an hour, then turn it back up and turn someone else’s down for an hour. The theory is you stay comfortable – and you’ll earn money for doing it.
“The system already works in Queensland and NSW with offpeak hot water systems,” Platt says. “Your offpeak hot water isn’t turned on until very late at night.”
The CSIRO is also running trials in Lake Macquarie, paying families to plug electric cars into the home’s power supply to feed in energy at peak consumption times.
“A normal electric car could run a typical Aussie house for 24 hours. But we’re only talking 10 minutes or half an hour when the grid is under pressure, that you would be asked to draw on the car battery.”
Platt says complete isolation from the grid is possible for inner city dwellers, but is really only feasible for regional properties that are far from power lines.
Instead, the best idea is to brush up on your general energy efficiency. The next step would be to install a solar hot water system, which converts almost 100 per cent of the sun’s heat (solar panels convert about 12 per cent, while only 20 per cent of coal-fired energy is eventually used as electricity).
Only once these steps have been taken should you think about making your own electricity, and the most effective option for this is solar panels.
Another possibility is to install fuel cells, which use natural gas to super-charge a building’s electricity supply. But these cost up to $30,000.
Australian company Ceramic Fuel Cells makes BlueGen units for homes and offices, which they say provide up to 13,000 kilowatts of energy a year – more than double the average household requirement.
“A gas bottle for a barbecue would last about 10 days, so it makes a lot of power from just a little gas,” chief executive Brendan Dow says.
BlueGen units are efficient – apart from power, it also produces hot water as a byproduct. The payback period will be less than 10 years, particularly in Victoria once the new subsidies there kick in. The advantage of these units over solar power is that they provide a reliable flow of energy, be it cloudy or dark.
Nick Brass, the chief executive of solar company Energy Matters, says people stay connected to the grid but use solar panels to offset times when they draw on coal power.
“Solar is by far the cheapest electricity,” Brass says. “It should cost about 5¢ a megawatt, while electricity from the grid costs anywhere from 10¢ to 40¢ in peak periods.”
He warns that poor-quality panels, unqualified installers and unreliable wiring are all hazards, particularly with 800 volts of electricity flowing through the roof.
Top-tier suppliers that invest in research, have an automated production line and are solvent enough to honour warranties, only make up about 15 per cent of the market.
“Quality is a very dangerous word in this market. Everyone uses it,” Brass says. “Be careful about what panel you select. It’s going to be on your roof for 25 years. If any part of the system stops working after only 10 years, you double your costs.”