Cheap & Simple Tracking of Your Energy Consumption

Coming up with measurable goals is essential to achieving most sorts of things. It is even better when you can measure partial progress towards your goals, as in “you are 10% closer” – as opposed to “you made it” or “you haven’t” measures.

Fortunately in measuring your energy footprint you have simple ways to get important measurements. Specifically, you can treat your gas and electricity bill as a meter that tells you how closer or farther away you are from your footprint goals. Water bills are also good, if they measure your individual consumption. Other bills (such as the quantity & quality of your trash) are harder to use as good “meters” to set goals against as large utilities charge “by the bin” or flat rates.

My utility bill is full of useful information such as the following.

My utility is courteous enough to include a trend graph for consumption for the year; and a comparison to last year’s data if available.

Data in the bill is very raw- it does not take into account things like:

  • Changes in my patterns – for example, did I travel out of town for work? Maybe I had out-of-town visitors that stayed at home for some weeks?
  • Environmental changes – Especially the outside temperature and average duration of the day have a huge impact. Here in the Pacific Northwest, the longest day of the year is 16 hours long… and the shortest is 8h 2o min. That makes a huge difference on how long my lights are on or off, making it harder to compare one month against next.
  • Accidents – did I leave the lights on? Maybe I forgot to close a window or a door and your heater strived to warm the Great Outdoors for a full winter day ? One bad day can throw your monthly average off.
What I do is every time I get a bill I just copy the information from the key boxes and the overall price into a spreadsheet. This allows me to get some pretty charts and graphs like the following:
Electricity, Gas and Water over time

Charting your utility bills gives you critical feedback in reducing your footprint. The y-axis units are % of max to be able to compare different values. The latest upswing in electricity (red) has me puzzled, but I think I know what caused it.

I think utilities should expose an API or let you download your data in some easy to process format, like a CSV or spreadsheet that can then be imported into Excel or Google Spreadsheets. Of course, the use of Smart Meters that report their data realtime would be great, but a lot of efforts in that direction are still not doing great. In the meantime, periodic data entry, and appliances that report their own consumption will do.

Try doing this with your own utilities, you may learn something new!

More Details on PSE Green Power

I got a great piece of feedback from Heather Mulligan, PSE Green Power Market Manager, about how the extra cost of the Puget Sound Energy Green Power program is applied to help the financing of new stations. She says:

The extra cost is used to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (RECs), which represent 1 MWH of actual energy production. RECs place a monetary value on the environmental attributes associated with renewable energy generation, thus making it easier for the developer to get the necessary funding to build their project. So in that sense, RECs do make it easier to get the startup capital needed, which does help to encourage the creation of more small & renewable generation stations.

– Heather Mulligan, PSE Green Power Market Manager

What is a REC?

After researching the good and bad side of the REC system, I came to the conclusion that it is just a token-based market for “green Megawatt-hours”. Trying to put it simply:

  • If I put up a wind generator, and I generate 1 megawatt for 1 hour, I have two things I can sell – a megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity, and a REC, which is worth some cash (I estimate around $10 per REC).
  • PSE sells electricity to people. They want more of it. So PSE buys my megawatt.
  • Some people want “green power” so they also “buy” RECs from PSE which are worth a bit of cash.
  • PSE has to buy a REC from my mini-utility to meet these people’s demand, or fail audits.
  • By using the RECs (and the associated auditing that comes with this ‘virtual good”), the consumers can say “I want renewable electricity” – and have to put their money where their mouth is – and PSE has to get them from somewhere.
This great diagram from BEF explains the flow:
How a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) Works (by

How a Renewable Energy Certificate (REC) Works. See the great explanation at

Common misconceptions

Some folks claim this distorts the market. That is true. But the market is already VERY distorted as it is: with externalized costs (which every non-renewable generator has tons of), large R&D and supply-chain subsidies (which large nuclear, hydro, etc. projects have), and a central controlling distribution entity consumers can’t choose (which almost every utility company is). With RECs I have a way to express my demand, so for me it removes some net distortion.

I also see claims that purchasing RECs are a way to offset your carbon footprint. RECs are not carbon-reduction tokens. They are a token of demand of renewable electricity, and I believe you can’t buy RECs beyond the amount of Megawatt-hour you consume. In addition, some renewable energy sources are still carbon positive (that is, they still throw some previously captured carbon into the atmosphere, even if at lesser rates and from smarter sources than, say, coal). Therefore buying RECs won’t offset the emissions of your car.

Sign up!

I know this sounds like an ad – it is not- but there are few things that you can do that are as smart, cheap and easy to reduce your energy footprint as signing up for the PSE Green Power energy.

Just log in here:

and choose 100 percent. If you don’t do it, I would love to understand why, and how you feel about it.

Practicalities of testing your LED bulbs

Here are my tips for the logistics of testing many LED bulbs as you find the light that works for you:

Purchasing & Returning LED lights

  • Plan to test many bulbs. Return the losers, keep the winners. Don’t feel shy about returning items you don’t want. LEDs in bulk can be an investment, and everyone would rather get a return of 1 or 3 bulbs one week after, not 30 a month later.
  • Easy returns implies getting them from a brick-and-mortar store nearby, if possible. Try to re-use trips to the store and back.
  • Buy many bulbs of the same type you are trying to replace, and test them shortly one after the other. It’s hard to remember “what something looked like a week ago”. Buy some with a bit of variation – for example, buy a bulb that is slightly brighter and another one slightly dimmer than the one you are trying to replace.
  • Keep the boxes and packaging materials of all the bulbs you are testing – even when committing to one particular brand or model, I kept the box around for a few days just in case. You don’t want to be stuck with $25 items you don’t want.
  • Likewise, keep the receipts if needed. Home Depot will allow you to return items by just swiping the same credit card you used to buy them.

Testing LED lights at home

  • Test in the actual location where you want to see the bulbs work – e.g. in your living room ceiling, not in a bulb receptacle at eye level in the garage.
  • Keep the new bulbs installed for a couple of days. Test at day and night, so you get to the point when you are not thinking about it or looking at it on purpose.
  • Check in with your spouse and family about the conclusions. They may feel differently about what’s better.

Changing your sources of electricity

Changing your source of electricity is one of the simplest and cheapest things you can do to reduce your footprint. Many utilities are offering “Green Power” options where a part of the electricity you use is purchased from more sustainable sources, for less than the price of a monthly LED bulb.

We live in the Pacific Northwest, and our power company here (Puget Sound Energy) offers a Green Power program where you pay a bit extra, in order to get a % of your electricity purchased from farm, biogas, and small hydro.

Why does it cost extra?

The extra cost is used as startup capital to encourage the creation of more small & renewable generation stations. In other words, your money will go into creating new independent businesses that will provide more renewable generation capacity in the region.

How do you know it is “your” electricity that is being generated?

There is no way to differentiate an electron from another. Technically, you are not buying their electrons, you are instructing your utility to buy more generation from them, proportional to your use, and place it in the grid.

Update. This was such a frequently asked question I made this other post:  More Details on PSE Green Power.

How much difference does it make?

Power sources differ by region, but here in the Northwest the PSE “basic” offering comes from a pathetic combination of sources (the proportions are for 2011 data I could find)

  • Large Hydro: 36%. Large hydro creates flood areas, change water tables, and disrupt natural flow of organisms along rivers.
  • Coal: 32%.  Burning coal pumps CO2 and other pollutants into the atmosphere. Earth requires less CO2 in the air to sustain humanity.
  • Natural Gas: 30%  Natural gas, another fossil fuel, pumps large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.
  • Nuclear & Other: 2% While nuclear is potentially a good “bridge” technology for a carbon crisis on earth, or super-specialized uses like biomedical and space exploration, it requires adult handling and our civilization is too immature yet to meet the long-term safety standards required by this technology.
Compare this to the “Green Power” option, that despite the individual shortcomings of some generation methods, is way more smart and sustainable:
  • Wind Power: 50%. There are many generating farms in the region, especially towards the East where it’s windier.
  • Landfill gas: 24%. I’m not a fan of this as it increases the profit margin of landfills, but if it’s there, you may as well use it.
  • Low impact Hydro: 10%. Small hydro generation doesn’t require the big government subsidies, decades-long maintenance contracts, and large flood valley areas of large hydro.
  • Biomass & Wood Waste: 7%. Burning wood waste instead of creating an acidifying pollutant by dumping chips. It’s popping back some CO2 into the atmosphere, but it’s from carbon that was captured in our geologic era.
  • Livestock & Methane: 7%. Cows & their manure are a major source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Capturing the methane for burning and producing power is smarter than farting it into the wind. I’m not a fan of supporting livestock industries, so increasing their profit margin is something I wouldn’t choose to do.
  • Solar Power: 2%. The pacific northwest has high latitudes and a large part of it has a constant cloud cover, getting less than 150 Watts per square meter. The eastern region has higher solar exposure, however.
 Ideally, PSE would allow me to select where my extra money will go. I don’t want it going to a landfill generator… but I most certainly prefer that to a coal or gas generator.

Is this the best I can do?

No, probably the best you can do is live on a farm or plant enough crops on your house or roof to then create alcohol that you feed into simple thermal generators or burn in lamps made of clay from your own garden. This would be a resilient, carbon-neutral, zero-supply-chain solution (except for the generator, if you buy it). It won’t run your microwave oven, however. Do what you can.

How do I do it?

1) Go to PSE.COM, log in or create your account.

3) Visit this page

4) Fill the form in and leave the “100 percent” option.There is NO rationale to choose less:


Changing big spot recessed lights

How do you get started with lowering your energy use?

First you want to look around your house at how you use lights today. The goal is to find which are the lights that are on most of the time because they are places you occupy as you go around your day (night), or because they leave a useful utility light. Spending a lot of money changing a bulb on a room you don’t use every day isn’t going to do much versus a place you occupy.

You also want to note which lights or circuits have the highest power bulbs. Watts-reduced-per-dollar, it will be cheaper to change a 120W bulb for a 18W for $28  (3.6 W/$) than to change two 60W for two 10W bulbs at 2 * $19 (2.6 W/$)

For my first batch of changes, I was able to replace a bunch of 90 W halogens and Incandescent lights in “roof cans”. These were typically in studies, hallways or other areas which tended to stay on.

After some experiments – and many returns – I ended up replacing them with three sort of bulbs mostly:

1) A study ended up getting an Ecosmart Bright White Flood (24W,3000K). The “hotter” temperature leads to “cooler” (bluish) colors which was OK for the modern look of the study. The study also has a dimmable standing lamp which has 2700K bulbs which can be used for a subdued lighting if needed. (Home Depot – although my packaging was different, they came in a box- and can’t find them on Amazon!)

 2) Lights in hallways, walk-in closets and the laundry room ended up being replaced by the EcoSmart 14-Watt  BR30 LED Flood Light Bulb (Home Depot, didn’t find them on Amazon but these seem to be the same with a different brand). They seem brighter than an incandescent 90W, have a simple plain look when off, and are very bright, and are 2700K, which makes for natural light in the walk in closets and hallways. They were very bright, and the light was not so ‘directed’. They do take almost a second to turn on, which throws you off the first week or so, but then you get used to it.

3) A bunch of 90W halogen lamps ended up getting replaced by Ecosmart 9.5W lamps with the full enclosure (not shown in the picture). They were also very nice looking when on and off, are 2700K, and extremely easy to install – just adjust the distance of the “lip” to the bulb screw, and screw the whole thing in like a large lightbulb. It may take two tries if you are unlucky, but no tools or skills are needed. The enclosure also helps decrease air drafts that reduce your home’s heating/cooling efficiency; and modernize the look of the light fixture.

With these changes, I easily got rid of around 1000W of potential use with around 130W. The lamps were costly – especially the ones with the full enclosure, but in the long run still worth it.

Find the light that works for YOU

When we made the decision to experiment changing bulbs LED, I didn’t know how much of an ‘experiment’ it would be. There are a lot of potential brands, suppliers and bulb models and their availability are constantly changing.

I will not go into a bulb-by bulb comparison sharing the pros and cons of each, as I have seen that finding out whats “best” is very context-dependent. For example, is it for a recessed light or a track light? How big is the original bulb? What sort of effect are you needing – an ambient light or a task light? Do you care what the bulb looks like when you look ‘up’ and what is the aesthetic you are after? These are not one-size-fits-all sorts of questions. You can’t even trust the pictures you see of others’ installations, as very few folks know how to calibrate the exposure and white-balance of their cameras. Most pictures you will see hold little resemblance to the real light you’d see with your own eyes.

Lighting is one of the architectural attributes of a home, and can greatly change its atmosphere. A cozy room can be made into a harsh hospital hallway with the wrong lighting.  You’ll get to appreciate this more once you test different alternatives one right after another.

Question, Research, Experiment, Measure

Reducing footprints is hard, especially because a lot of the information, criteria and end results are hard to know, or unknowable.

You can measure things that are at-hand – such as your own electricity consumption-, via sensors, meters, or even subjective gut-feel scoring, but you cannot really measure or quantify values such as the carbon footprint of your utility company, and you cannot verify yourself the business practices of Phillips’ suppliers in China other than by some google searches.

In any case, you want to take a fact-based approach to reducing your footprint.

Here is the cycle I’m going to be using throughout this blog:


Asking what should change, why and how.


Finding out information first hand, through the Internet, or from experts.


Try stuff out in deliberate ways.


See if what you tried changed anything.

Hopefully by separating these thinking areas the whole effort of reducing the footprint becomes more approachable.

How to Change a Light Bulb

A light bulb goes out in your house. Let’s say for the sake of argument it’s a standard 60W incandescent tungsten-based  light. Also, for the sake of argument let’s say you want to replace it, because the space is transited when the day is dark, or for some other practical or aesthetic reason – or just because it used to be there.

Let’s also assume you care a bit about the planet or your children, and that you are a critical thinker. Now things suddenly got complicated.

If you’re like me, over the next ten seconds your gaze seems fix on the burnt bulb, and then float through it, past its glass globe and dangling tungsten filament fragment.

Now staring 10 seconds at a bulb is a bit weird, especially for spectators that seem to be increasingly reassured I’ve lost it but somehow seem to love me more for it. During those ten weird seconds, the following unfolds in my mind:

Your first reaction might be "wha... this dude needs help". Maybe, but only by challenging our own thinking, questioning, researching, experimenting and measuring we will ever get to be better off.

As you see, a burnt out bulb can, trigger an exploration of a complex and vast decision space – one in which I run into my own beliefs and assumptions, with more unknowns and unknowables than knowns. I may not know the optimal decision, a lot of the data I base those decisions on may be wrong, incomplete, or fabricated. I also realize I’m not the vanguard of sustainability – I can probably live using way less resources with some extreme changes in lifestyle; but I do believe I can use significantly less resources with some mindful changes.

But I can live with what I have decided – I’m going to go with LEDs for most cases and CFLs where I have them already.

Conclusion: Experiment with LEDs