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Saturday, Jun 05 2010 12:00 PM

Want a lower bill? Cut your energy usage

BY JOHN COX, Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Short of buying solar panels or a new air conditioner, Rosedale homeowner Clint Phillips has done just about all he can do to control his summer electric bills without sacrificing his family's comfort.

Some of the steps he has taken -- such as analyzing his online SmartMeter data, and signing up for a "SmartRate" plan -- came courtesy of his electricity provider, Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

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A CLOSER LOOK

This report is part of a series of stories looking at why Bakersfield residents pay so much for electricity.

 

SUMMER CONSERVATION TIPS

* Use room-darkening shades on windows that receive direct sunlight

* Keep refrigerators full by using items such as water bottles as filler

* Use ceiling fans when possible to create air cooling effect

* Reduce the number of hours your pool pump runs

* Zone your air conditioner before going to bed so it cools only rooms that are occupied

* Consider using a whole house fan at night to bring in cooler air from outside

* Install proper home insulation and seal any air leaks

* Unplug cell phone and laptop computer chargers when they're not in active use

* Turn off your computer and monitor when they're not in use

* Switch from traditional incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent lights

* Air dry dishes instead of using your dishwasher's drying cycle

* Wash and dry full loads

* Remove lint from your dryer's filter, and periodically check that the machine's vent is not blocked

* Consider air-drying clothes on clothes lines or racks

* When shopping for home appliances, look for the "Energy Star" or "EnergyGuide" labels

Sources: PG&E, U.S. Department of Energy


PG&E SUMMER SAVINGS PROGRAMS

Summer in Bakersfield usually means hot weather and higher electric bills. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. offers these programs to help customers manage their costs:

SmartAC

Customers who sign up for this program receive a free programmable thermostat that can be controlled directly at home or over the Internet.

PG&E uses the device to take over your air-conditioner during times of peak systemwide usage in order to avoid blackouts. Such events are to last no more than six hours, and customers can opt out for the day without penalty at almost any time.

The program works by switching your air conditioner to a different operating mode in times of need. When in this mode, the machine alternates every 15 minutes between normal cooling and simple recirculation of air that has already been cooled.

PG&E customers can enroll by calling 866-908-4916, or by going online at www.pge.com/myhome/saveenergymoney/energysavingprograms/smartac.

SmartRate Summer Pricing Plan

Under this program, customers are charged discounted rates between May and October in exchange for agreeing to pay higher rates between 2 and 7 p.m. during as many as 15 "SmartDays" a year.

Customers receive advance alerts whenever PG&E declares a SmartDay. That way, customers can try to reduce their energy consumption by doing things like turning down their air conditioner or shifting energy-intensive activities such as dishwashing to later hours. Customers' ability to save money, or incur additional expenses, depends on their ability to cut their electricity usage during these events.

For more information, or to enroll, go online at https://www.pge-smartrate.com.

Source: PG&E

Other measures he more or less invented himself. Instead of leaving on his coffee maker for two hours a day (at a cost of $25 a month), he pours it into a thermos as soon as it's brewed. He also lowers his air conditioner to 72 degrees at about 5 a.m., then at 2 p.m. he lowers it to 80 degrees, thereby reducing his total monthly usage by as much as 15 percent.

Phillips said his monthly bill of about $550 in peak summer heat hasn't gone down noticeably, probably because of PG&E's periodic rate increases. But his bills haven't gone up, either.

"I think I have done what I can do," he said confidently.

Energy efficiency is the other side of Bakersfield's struggle with steep electric bills. Much attention recently has focused on problems with PG&E SmartMeters, the way its tiered rate structure has grown increasingly lopsided, and the ever-rising costs that are passed on to PG&E's customers.

But one thing the utility and its critics agree on is that ratepayers can and do save money when they reduce their energy consumption.

As Phillips' case illustrates, there are many things even the most frugal people can do to keep down their energy costs, often with PG&E's direct assistance.

Spending to save money

Investing in energy-efficient appliances helps, too, as the experience of Bakersfield retiree Bruce Rapp shows.

When his 3,300-square-foot home was being built in 2002, Rapp bought a high-efficiency air-conditioning system, a whole house fan to make the most of cool morning air, and had only fluorescent lights installed. He also spent big on an energy-saving washer and dryer.

Now his bills run about $400 a month in the summer. And although he said he probably could afford to pay more, having invested wisely over the years, he doesn't want to.

"If I got a choice between sending my money to PG&E or going out to dinner," he said, "I'm going out to dinner."

Help from PG&E

PG&E offers various programs and services to help its customers reduce their usage, from incentives designed to lower consumption at times of peak demand, to a new option that allows the company to turn down air-conditioners remotely.

Free home energy audits are available, too. When customers request one (by calling 800-743-5000), the company sends out an inspector who tours the home looking at things like attic insulation, air-conditioning units and pool pumps.

"Basically, it's an evaluation of your home's energy efficiency," local PG&E spokesman Denny Boyles said. "They can be pretty in-depth."

The inspector's recommendations can be wide-ranging, and may include investment suggestions. Boyles said there's no obligation to carry out any changes.

"It's just basically someone saying, 'If you're looking at your home energy bill, this is some stuff I'd do,'" he said.

Saving the planet

Some efficiency improvements are simple, like unplugging appliances that use energy even when they're turned off.

"Anything with an AC adapter, anything with a clock or a light, anything that uses electricity should be put on a power strip and turned off when not in use," Mindy Spatt, spokeswoman for The Utility Reform Network, a San Francisco-based consumer advocacy group, wrote in an e-mail.

She added that an estimated 5 percent of the nation's electricity usage is wasted on stand-by power.

"Simple conservation measure(s) can help consumers save money -- and the planet," she wrote.

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