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Are costly energy bills draining your wallet? Win the power struggle

With a few cheap and easy changes, you can cut costly energy bills

January 18, 2009|Marla Dickerson

You can go broke going green.

Solar panels cost tens of thousands of dollars. And who's got the money to buy all new appliances?

Don't despair. There is a lot you can do, right now, with very little cash outlay, to make your home energy efficient and cheaper to run.

Go fluorescent. You'll save as much as 75% on the lighting portion of your electric bill by losing those incandescent bulbs.

Your old pool pump sucks. Energy, that is. You can save an average of $50 a month by leasing the latest technology.

Then there's that banged-up fridge in your garage. Unplug it and throw out the stale six-pack chilling inside. You'll be sipping bubbly on New Year's Eve with the dough you'll pocket by year's end -- easily $100 or more.

"There are lots of simple things that people can do to save energy," said Mark Bernstein, managing director of the Energy Institute at USC. "It's not that hard and it doesn't require big changes in behavior."

Sure, old-school energy efficiency isn't as exotic as a home wind turbine or as fun as driving a Prius. Still, it's an easy way to pinch pennies in a lousy economy while helping the environment. Experts say reducing the U.S. appetite for fossil fuels will depend not only on developing clean, renewable sources of power, but in getting Americans to go on an energy diet as the population and economy grow.

"The only way to keep up with demand is to cut it," said Bill Tauber, founder of Tustin-based Progressive Lighting & Energy Solutions, which helps businesses slash their energy bills. "It's the only way we're going to get energy self-sufficient and not destroy the planet."

A good place to begin is your home or office. Buildings consume about 40% of all the energy used in the U.S., according to the Department of Energy. And they account for nearly half of greenhouse gas emissions. That's because the nation burns copious amounts of fossil fuel to heat, cool and light these boxes.

The No. 1 fuel source for producing electricity in the U.S. is coal, which spews more carbon dioxide per unit of energy produced than the gasoline in your car. CO2 is the stuff that's helping melt the Earth's ice caps. That's why leaving your iPod charging for days on end is helping make life tough for polar bears and penguins.

Even if you don't believe in global warming, energy efficiency is still good for your wallet. Constructing new power plants and transmission lines costs billions of dollars. Ratepayers foot the bill.

"The more energy we use, the higher the prices are going to be," Bernstein said.

Fortunately, there's a lot you can do to cut your home energy bills and give the planet a little love.

Get an energy audit

State regulators reward utilities for reducing their customers' energy use. The result is loads of consumer-oriented efficiency programs, including the home energy audit.

Customers of Southern California Edison Co., Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. can arrange for an auditor to visit their home free of charge.

SCE contractor Jon Arnett recently stopped at the La Canada home of retiree Rebecca Martin and found a dozen ways for her to cut her electricity, gas and water usage. Most were simple things that would cost little or nothing. Those include using energy-efficient light bulbs, turning down her water heater's temperature and switching to low-flow shower heads and faucet aerators.

A few, such as insulating the garage attic and ditching her old refrigerator for a newer model, will cost some money. Others, such as encouraging Martin's 21-year-old son Mike to give up his energy-sucking 45-inch plasma TV, just aren't going to happen.

Still, if Martin is like most SCE customers who implement recommendations, she'll save roughly $100 a year. The retired bank manager is placing a higher value on the effort. She's been motivated by President-elect Barack Obama's calls for Americans do their part to help the environment and work toward U.S. energy independence. "That really brought it home," Martin said.

SCE and other utilities offer online energy audits for customers who don't have time for an in-home inspection. Check your utility's website.

Install better bulbs

Lighting accounts for more than 10% of U.S. residential energy spending, government figures show. One of the easiest ways to save is by changing those old incandescent lightbulbs. Consumers have two main options: compact fluorescent bulbs, also known as CFLs; and light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

Those twisty CFLs might look funny, but they last 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs and use up to 75% less electricity. At less than $2 each for some sizes, they're fairly inexpensive. The big drawback is that CFLs contain small amounts of mercury and have to be handled and disposed of carefully.

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