40% Less Electricity? An NYC Energy Story

Monday, April 26, 2010


by Ingrid Wiegand

Throwing away stuff from earlier years after doing this year’s taxes, I came across a bunch of ConEd bills from 2003. Just for the hell of it, I decided to check the “Average Daily Electric Use” graph that ConEd provides every month, and compare it with my current use. Wow! Was I surprised! When I added it up and averaged it, I had reduced the kilowatt hours I use every year by 40 per cent, and I was hardly trying. Take a look.


In the summer of 2002, my peak use for the month was 24kwh; in 2009, it was 12kwh. My lowest in 2002/3 was 10kwh; in 2009/10 it was 7kwh. Six years ago I averaged 14.6kwh/day; over the last 12 months, I averaged 8.9.

What have I been doing? Well, for one, I’ve gotten good at turning off lights I’m not using. Even though my bathroom has a skylight, the six 25-watt lights over the mirror used to be on most of the day, never mind in the evening. Even when the sun was shining directly into the bathroom, I’d forget to turn the lights off because the sun was so bright you didn’t notice any lights were on. The under-cabinet kitchen lights: the same.  On a rainy day, if I went into a bedroom to turn a light on, it might stay on even if the sun came out. I was a regular American, squandering energy like a perk that was going to expire if I didn’t use it.

Then I got the message. Energy is a perk that’s going to expire, but the perk turns out to be the habilitability of Earth with a capital E. It wasn’t that I was a total jerk: I’d been recycling my plastics, glass, metal and paper for years, because I knew that it was getting picked up and – well, recycled. But electricity? It was like the water a fish swims in, taken for granted – until it the price went up and it got my attention.

I replaced all my incandescents with CFL’s, excluding the ones over the bathroom cabinet, because CFL’s with candleabra bases weren’t available until recently. Because several of my lighting fixtures use halogen bulbs, it turned out I only had four regularly used incandescent lights beside the ones in the bathroom, but I noticed the difference in my bills right away.  I also got a new, much more efficient air conditioner. A new refrigerator is in the offing, and that should make an even deeper dent.

It took months, but I’m really good now at turning off lights when I leave a room. (I even turn off the lights in public bathrooms when there’s a switch.) More recently, I got a set of electric plug controls with a remote. I put one where I plug in my computer surge protector so that all my computer-related stuff really sleeps when I do. It’s not like Verizon isn’t keeping all the email that’s coming in while I sleep, so my Outlook can collect it in the morning.  I put another on the plug for my main tv/cable/VCR connection. I kind of check once a week that there’s nothing I want to DVR during any night, but it turns out that’s not often, so that hasn’t been a problem. A third disconnects my stereo system, mostly to keep the clock from sucking up juice at night, but also because anything that operates with a remote will do its vampire bit if allowed.

Can Americans cut their energy use enough, soon enough to make a difference – not just on climate change, but on all the things that affect electricity use, like the amount of coal burned or the number of new electricity-generated plants required? If I can do this with a New York apartment, think what the average American can do, with a house that on average, contains 45 light bulbs.

It’s true that residential electricity use is only about nine per cent of the energy picture, but most of the rest comes from our insatiable consumerism, from wanting more and still more of everything. But once you start turning off your lights, once you get careful about wasting energy, you start to think, when you’re shopping: “Do I really need that?” It’s the beginning of a different way of life.

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