MY MONEY

The energy power plays

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My family needs to go on an energy diet. We have shed a few kilowatt hours with measures such as ceiling insulation and LED light bulbs, but we need to lose more. We want to save money as our power bills are set to rise 20% this year, but we also want to help the environment. It is why I like to hear how people have cut their power usage.

Take Hugh and Bridget Strickland, from Nelly Bay, Magnetic Island, off the coast of Queensland. They participated in the Federal Government's Solar Cities program, which encourages people to change their energy consumption behaviour.

The Stricklands have painted the roof of their house with heat-reflective paint, added insulation in the ceiling and installed a solar-powered rooftop extraction fan, which pulls cool air up through the whole house. These three changes have cut the interior temperature by 8 to 10 degrees.

They also upgraded four inefficient box air-conditioners with five-star-rated inverter split systems and put in a heat pump hot water service, converted to gas in their kitchen and improved their oven, cook top and refrigerator.

Thousands of Australians are involved in the Solar Cities program, which targets communities in seven locations. Participants are typically offered two thorough energy assessments, as well as ways to measure their usage, such as in-home displays and smart meters, so that they can see how much power - and money - their appliances consume.

They are encouraged to add solar photovoltaic and solar hot water to their home. Some are given incentives in the form of credits on their power bill for cutting their energy use.

Another participant in Solar Cities is Jude Mapleson, who lives in Alice Springs. She has cut her energy consumption from 9.7 kilowatts a day to 5.2. The recently retired Jude, who is on a low income, installed a solar hot water system and cut her water heating bills by hundreds of dollar a year. She received a government rebate on the solar hot water system. The rebate is now $2000.

Jude also cut down the heat flow through the roof and ceiling into her living areas by painting her roof white to reflect heat. It has reduced the inside temperate by 3 to 4 degrees and means she hardly uses her air-conditioner in the nine months of hot weather in Alice Springs. However, the downside is that it's cold in winter.

"People should look for opportunities and be proactive about cutting their power," says Sam Latz, general manager, Alice Solar City.

Solar Cities started trials in 2007 and some early findings have been impressive. Energy consumption on Magnetic Island dropped by 27% from 2008 to mid-2010. The demand at peak times is 20% lower.

This is welcome news for Ergon Energy, the joint venture partner in the Solar Cities Project on Magnetic Island, as it allows it to postpone a $17 million upgrade to the energy cable from the mainland to meet the growing island's electricity demand.

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Susan has been a finance journalist for more than 30 years, beginning at the Australian Financial Review before moving to the Sydney Morning Herald. She edited a superannuation magazine, Superfunds, for the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, and writes regularly on superannuation and managed funds. She's also author of the best-selling book Women and Money.
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