Taking Action: How Much Electricity Are We Wasting?

Kathy Kuntz, Chelsea Chandler and Roy Thilly

A version of this column first appeared as a blog post on the website of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters.

Most of us presume other people are wasting electricity and gas or propane in their homes. We think our usage is average or less than average – it is our neighbors who are not conserving energy. In a 2012 household survey of 1,008 adults just 9% said that they used more energy than other households in their community – everyone else (89%!) thought their usage was average or below average. 

Apparently, we all live in Lake Wobegon! 

While this is a pleasant vision, it has serious consequences. A person who thinks he already conserves more energy than others is likely to ignore tips for reducing energy usage. That means missing key opportunities to take action to address climate change and save money.

Everyone has options to reduce energy consumption. Some have big opportunities. In Wisconsin, average electric household consumption is about 700 kwh a month. Usage varies from as low as 167 kwh to as high as 2083 kwh per month. This means some households use as much electricity in a month as others use in a whole year. A similar disparity exists for heating fuels. There are pretty easy ways to get well below the Wisconsin averages.

You can find out how your usage compares to similar homes in your area by contacting your utility. Sturgeon Bay Utilities and Wisconsin Public Service have websites where you can see your energy use compared to Wisconsin averages and strategies to conserve energy. Or just call a customer service representative for help. 

Smart thermostats like Nest include an email feature that tells you how your energy use compares to last month’s and last year’s usage, the factors that explain any significant differences and how you compare to other Nest users in your area.  

One of the most effective ways to find savings is to get a home energy audit. Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program can provide a list of qualified auditors in your area. Through a careful inspection, an infrared screening and a blower door test, an auditor can identify where your home is leaking energy and the most cost-effective steps you can take to conserve. You are likely to be surprised by the results. Then make the recommended improvements, understanding the payback through energy savings. Be sure to take advantage of the incentives Focus on Energy provides, and applicable tax credits.

Most Wisconsin public libraries will lend you a watt meter to enable you to measure the electric usage of specific appliances. Appliances that are warm to the touch use more electricity than appliances that are cool. Typically, older appliances are less efficient than newer models. 

Once you’ve got a sense of your biggest electric users, take action to conserve. This may mean unplugging  an item until needed. Or you may want to replace and recycle a large user. For example:

  • Unplug the tv in the  guest room and plug it in when guests are arrive. Any appliance with a clock or remote uses electricity when it is off.
  • A second refrigerator or freezer in the garage or basement is likely costing $100 per year to run. Focus on Energy will haul away that appliance and pay you $35!
  • Cable companies offer very efficient cable boxes. They’ll replace your older boxes at no cost—so call to upgrade.
  • The frosted-over dehumidifier in your basement may be using a lot of electricity while not doing much about humidity. Replace it with an ENERGY STAR model.
  • Get a programmable thermostat, set it to heat or cool less when no one is home and at night. Set it down a degree or two in winter and up a degree or two in summer. The savings will surprise you and you can stay comfortable with a nice sweater or a cool shirt.
  • Set computers and game consoles to sleep after 10 minutes if there’s no usage.
  • Make sure all the lights you use regularly have LED bulbs.

Reducing energy usage is a great way to take personal action to help address climate change and also save money. Think of the results if everybody took this step. That will never happen if you don’t take action!

Chelsea Chandler is Director of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters’ Environmental Initiatives. Before joining the Academy, she worked as a scientist in the Stockholm Environment Institute’s Climate and Energy group and studied climate change adaptation through water resource management in the Andes with the International Union for Conservation of Nature. She has a master’s in Global Change Science and Policy from the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a bachelor’s in Atmospheric Science from the University of California, Berkeley.

Kathy Kuntz is executive director of Cool Choices, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that inspires individuals, communities and businesses to adopt sustainable practices that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Cool Choices collaborates with private businesses and public entities to engage employees around sustainability, promoting changes at work and at home via a fun and social online platform. She previously led Focus on Energy, Wisconsin’s energy efficiency and renewable energy program. She has a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin and a Bachelor’s from the University of Minnesota.

Roy Thilly is a member of the steering committee of the Climate Change Coalition of Door County and a resident of Baileys Harbor.