Energy Savers

Meet the winners of our Kill-a-Watt Challenge

Rainer Blunck
Rainer Blunck (Photo by Jana Birchum)

1,599,604 kilowatt hours.

That's enough electricity to keep a single lightbulb burning for 10,000 years or to run a television showing 21,000,000 back-to-back episodes of Oprah or to beat the single-player campaign mode on Halo 3 1 million times.

It's also how much electricity the competitors saved in the Chronicle's Kill-a-Watt Challenge.

From June to September, Austin Energy customers signed up for the challenge with one aim: to reduce their electricity usage as much as possible. Bills were compared against those for the same period last year. Renters, homeowners, businesses, and even entire neighborhoods could compete to have the greatest total reduction in kilowatts used or the greatest percentage drop from last year for the same property. Each month, individual winners in each category were announced, and now the overall winners have been calculated. While most of the 1,152 contestants – including private citizens, businesses, state agencies, churches, and even fraternities – made dramatic cuts in their individual bills, there's a bigger story. Together, the contestants brought about a 13% cut in their total electricity consumption, with resultant cuts in their bills and pollution.

According to AE, in high summer, 60-70% of all electricity bills are due to air conditioners. With this year's milder summer, many contestants found themselves cutting their bills without even trying or without feeling the effects of the heat. But others really thought about their savings, like Rainer Blunck. The overall winner of the homeowners category, the former resident of Hamburg, Germany, managed to cut the electric bills on his two-story home in Park Creek West by an astonishing 86%. He already had compact fluorescent lamps for lighting but still made sure to turn them off when leaving a room. He also turned off the automated ice-maker in his freezer, but, as he said, this was "a few percent here and there." The biggest savings still came from only using his air conditioning when he needed it. "I bought a fan," said Blunck, "and because I have a two-story, I could leave the windows open to let in the relatively cool air at night." The addition of insulated blinds cut daytime warming, but he took advantage of the sun to dry his laundry on a line in his garage. While his house was comfortable, Blunck said he also noticed how hard businesses run their air conditioning. "When I go to restaurants, I go in, and I'm cold," he said. "I avoid sitting under the vents."

Using the Tools

Bard Card, operations manager at Brown Distributing Co.
Bard Card, operations manager at Brown Distributing Co. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The challenge also attracted businesses and even proved that already environmentally minded firms can always stand a little greening up. (The contest also drew a more limited competition – the Austin Interfaith Mini-Challenge – sponsored by Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, among local congregations and their members, and won by University Presbyterian Church.)

SWCA Environmental Consultants cut the bills on its single-story office off MoPac South by the greatest percentage from last year. The firm, which specializes in analyzing the environmental impact of development and devising conservation plans for local governments, was already looking at ways to cut its carbon footprint. "The Kill-a-Watt Challenge came along, and I thought it would be a really interesting way to get everyone involved," said geologist Clover Clamons. What the firm quickly found was that the tools for cutting their energy usage were already installed. "Everything computer-related has a power-save function," said Clamons. "It just depends on whether you decide to use it." The firm's information-technology staff gave the go-ahead to shutting down computers completely when they weren't being used. But as with Blunck, new attitudes to air conditioning brought the biggest savings, especially when the firm started using its programmable thermostats. "We had them," said Clamons, "but no one had gone through the steps to program them to be off on weekends and out of office hours and to keep the office comfortable, not overly heated or overly cooled." The end result was a saving of $1,300, roughly equal to their highest month's utility bill.

The potential for reduced costs also attracted firms like Brown Distributing Co., overall winner for the biggest cut in kilowatts used. The beer distributor ships 9.7 million cases out of its 220,000-square-foot warehouse every year, and a big floor space meant a big change and a consequent big savings. As part of regular maintenance, the company stripped out its 400-watt high-bay (ceiling) lamps and replaced them with six-lamp fluorescent fixtures. Changing the fittings cost a little more, but the savings were expected to recoup the costs in 18 months. That calculation was wrong: Now it looks like it will happen in about a year. According to Brown's operations manager, Brad Card, there was another, unexpected upside. "The lighting in our warehouse is better than it was before, which is wild," Card said. "The metal high-lights degrade with time, but fluorescents last longer and don't lose their tone."

But saving electricity doesn't always mean making big structural changes. Overall renters category winner Haley Mack took the simple but radical step of opening a window. Having arrived in Austin in January from Long Beach, Calif., she was effectively competing against the previous tenants of her two-bedroom home in Hyde Park. But like most renters, she could not rebuild as a homeowner can. For her, the big changes came in behavior, and the simplest was to take advantage of the environment. "The air is fresh here," Mack said. "I come from L.A., where we say if you can't chew it, you don't breathe it." By taking simple steps, like leaving the windows open at night and using low-power fans to help blow cooled air around the rooms, she became less dependent on her air conditioner.

Spreading the Word

For Austin Energy, the end of the challenge is not the end of their efforts to get people to think about how they use electricity. "It's fun to have a competition," said AE spokesman Ed Clark, "but this is really about making people think, 'What can I do, in my day-to-day life, that I'm OK with that helps me reduce my energy usage without creating undue hardship?'" It fits with the utility's plan to reduce peak demand by 60 megawatts a year through efficiency and load shifting: getting customers to use appliances like washing machines outside normal high-demand hours. It might sound contrary for an electricity company to want to sell less electricity, but the industry numbers speak for themselves. If a generating firm wanted to add production capacity, it would cost $750 per kilowatt for gas-turbine generation, $2,500 for coal, or $2,800 for nuclear. To save a kilowatt of capacity only costs $318. "Energy efficiency is the most cost-effective generation plan," Clark said.

Some contestants have been talking to people in Austin and beyond about their experiences and exchanged energy-saving tips. "I learned so much from fellow Budweiser wholesalers across the country," said Card, "and from the city utility department, and they've picked up ideas from other guys." The savings Brown made have attracted the attention of other Anheuser-Busch warehouses, including the massive Dallas site, which ships 40 million cases a year. Similarly, workers who turned their office PC off when they go home are turning their home computer off when they leave for the office. "Some people have acquired a habit at work to take home," Clamons said. "I know I have."

For Mack, the biggest lesson is that Austinites can take advantage of their environment a little more. "It's astonishing to me how climate-controlled people are," she said. "Pay attention to the day: If it's beautiful out, open the window."

A note to readers: Bold and uncensored, The Austin Chronicle has been Austin’s independent news source for almost 40 years, expressing the community’s political and environmental concerns and supporting its active cultural scene. Now more than ever, we need your support to continue supplying Austin with independent, free press. If real news is important to you, please consider making a donation of $5, $10 or whatever you can afford, to help keep our journalism on stands.

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