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Slashing electricity bills

June 13, 2012


“Nothing in this country can be said to be certain but death and load shedding.” Hoping that the reader forgives this blatant mauling of Benjamin Franklin’s famous quote, this is the unfortunate truth for the bashindas of this great Islamic Republic. The dull roar of summer heat is accentuated by the lack of noise from everything else; fans, lights, factory machines, motors, tube wells, televisions, computers, all but the trusty generator for those who have it. Even that poor genny is struggling to match its manufacturers’ claims by being made to run above-and-beyond any specifications it was ever designed to meet.

Some very smart people have spoken with great insight and thought regarding the Gordian Knot that is the current energy crisis, so we will not go into the details of what we produce, how we produce it, how much the shortfall is, and what is being done about it. Suffice it to say things are not looking particularly rosy. Every suggested solution has its pros and cons, but a lot of the focus has been on the supply-side of the equation. This is basically how to increase electricity production at the lowest possible cost and how to minimise losses and theft. Here we take a look at some of the demand-side steps that can be taken by an electricity user to reduce their electricity load and their bill, while also reducing the overall energy requirement on the grid.

Breaking it down

Basic energy requirements can be broken down to lighting, cooling, and power for equipment. Lighting and cooling (whether fans or air conditioners) is straightforward enough. Power for equipment may vary. Home users may need to run standard home devices for various hours per day, while a shop keeper needs the coolers and deep freezers to run for at least 10 hours per day. The workshop or factory owners need power for their equipment for however long it is required, whether it is a tailor’s shop in Karachi, a wheat processing unit in Gujranwala or a cement factory in Lakki Marwat.

Building green

The first step to energy conservation starts with the physical infrastructure of any building. A brand new construction has the obvious benefits of being able to be designed in the most sustainable and energy efficient manner possible. This can include basic physical aspects such as high ceiling and small windows on the top of the walls so that the hot air that rises can be ventilated out. This can be seen in houses of older design all over Pakistan and serves to insulate the structure properly against excess heat, allows natural light and utilises as little electricity as possible.

For existing structures all over Pakistan, a very simple step forward is insulation. This will reduce the amount of heat gained and lost by the house, thereby reducing the cost of cooling or heating it. One method of insulation is installing double-glazed windows, or covering the window from outside using a reed (chaatai) curtain or overhang that will prevent direct sunlight from entering. The most effective method of insulation, however is to insulate your rooftop. Many different types of insulations are available, from specially treated paints to foam covering, but the easiest way is to paint the roof white (to reflect heat) and to cover as much of the roof with potted plants as possible. This keeps direct sunlight from hitting the roof; the air space between the plants act as another level of insulation, and for those with a green thumb you can grow some of your own vegetables, herbs, and fruits.

Replace, mend, and optimise

By replacing obsolete energy-sucking equipment or at the very least managing their utilisation better, significant energy benefits can be achieved. Nowadays, most users have moved away from electricity-guzzling incandescent bulbs to energy savers, which generally run at 24W and 18W. They cost a few hundred rupees and last for around a year or maybe two, depending on the regularity of usage. Replacing these with LED (light emitting diode) bulbs which give the equivalent level of light at around 40 per cent of the power will greatly reduce electricity requirements for lighting. A 9W to10W LED bulb gives the equivalent amount of light as a 24W energy saver, and has a much longer life (up to 10+ years). Initially, LED bulbs could only provide spot lighting as they were focused in a beam but new bulb designs give the same light pattern of energy saver bulbs at less than half the energy requirement. The cost per bulb is currently high, approximately 800 rupees per bulb for a 9W LED bulb, but it is expected to continue falling down as the market grows. The energy saving and the long life of the bulb makes it a wise investment.

Ceiling, pedestal, and bracket fans are used throughout the country and run at power ratings of around 60W to 120W. New designs of fans that run at one third of the power rating are available both in AC and DC. The speeds are around 90 per cent of those of traditional fans and do the same job for around 35W. One room running two lights and a fan can take either 150W using two energy savers and one traditional ceiling fan, or can take around 55W using two LED bulbs and an energy efficient fan. This amounts to nearly 60 per cent power saving per room. Imagine the effect on the power consumption if this is multiplied in the millions of rooms throughout the country! These fans and bulbs are currently being imported mainly from China, but there is no reason why our local manufacturers can make both the bulbs and fans at the same price and quality.

Air conditioners are always a huge power consumer. While energy consumption depends on the make, model and age of the AC, an average 1.5-ton AC takes around 2.5KW of power. The use of air conditioners has massively increased over the past 15 to 20 years, and is something that cannot be easily reversed, and so this trend must be factored into any conversation regarding demand-side efficiency. Options do exist in reducing this load however. The simplest one is running the AC at a higher temperature (the government suggests 26 degrees). The problem with this is to keep the room at 26 degrees, most of the time the AC has to stay at 16 degrees since there is no rooftop or window insulation keeping the temperature steady. Another option is the new inverter AC that is in the market, and claims to provide 1.5 ton cooling at 1.2kW. The design is the same as a standard split unit and the cost is around 15 per cent more, but once again, if the manufacturer claims are accurate, the power savings more than make up for the additional cost.

Home and consumer electronics also take a sizable load. By doing a basic comparison of the electronics available on the market and the power they require, demand-side efficiency can be reached by purchasing the most energy-efficient option. Various certifications such as Energy Star can be found on equipment to show that they are certified as being among the lowest energy consumers in comparison to similar products. Another area where efficiency can be achieved is by eliminating ‘ghost loads’. This is the power consumed by devices when they are not turned on, but are still connected to a power source. Each device consumes a basic few Watts and enough of them add up to become an unnecessary load. So always switch off and disconnect the power when not using any electronics that don’t need to run 24/7.

Just a basic run-through of three important energy consuming sectors – lighting, cooling and consumer electronics – illustrates that enough tried and tested low-tech and high-tech solutions exist so that a massive dent can be made in power shortages by managing our own energy consumption.

Beat the heat

Picture a home, properly insulated with a roof garden, running LED lights, low energy consuming fans, inverter air conditioners as needed and the most energy efficient appliances available, with UPS for back up. This home will probably use less than half the electricity it is using right now, its UPS will provide back up for longer and its energy bills will be much lower. Now imagine every home, shop, and factory in the country being as energy efficient as possible. The cost of the upgrading and replacing equipment is a definite challenge but this can be easily done in stages. A great difference can be made without having to add a megawatt of power to the grid. By implementing a few of these simple steps, we can get away from the inevitability of load shedding and go back to enjoying the summers for the mangoes and the rain.