Christmas lights go on in Durbans CBD& in his column Venter advocates cutting power usage in steps to reduce our impact on the environment. Picture: TERRY HAYWOOD

ONE of my New Year’s resolutions is to “walk the talk” when it comes to reducing my environmental footprint. Now I’m no green “hippie”. I like my creature comforts. I eat meat, drive a car, have a laptop, cellphone, TV etc.

I love my lifestyle and I want to continue enjoying it. I also want to reduce my impact on the environment and my contribution to global warming, and I think that in this regard I’m no different from my fellow South Africans.

So I thought that one of the themes for my column this year should be the lessons I learn as I try to reduce my impact while maintaining my lifestyle.

I thought I’d start this journey by figuring out how to take our house “off the grid” – that is, use solar and/or wind energy to provide the power we’re using. I started this process with an internet search for solar panels, wind turbines and DIY installation advice.

I’m no electrician, so I was soon befuddled by the many websites offering me panels, turbines, batteries, invertors, regulators and all the other bits and pieces available to the “green” enthusiast.

I realised I was out of my depth. One website pointed me to a local expert, who kindly agreed to come to my house and to walk my wife and I through the basics of alternative energy.

He had a quick look around, then sat us down to break the news that it was going to cost us more than R300 000 to take us off the grid if we continued to use energy the same way.

This made no sense as it would take us 15 years to recover this investment through our Eskom savings. Chatting to him, it became apparent that we should focus on reducing our consumption before worrying about going off the grid.

Now I’m one of many environmentalists who promote energy “reduction”; so it was embarrassing when he began to point out the many ways we could reduce our energy usage.

We thought we were doing well. We’d changed most of our lights to compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs, adjusted our geyser thermostat and switched off lights and appliances not in use. What we’d never done was try to understand our usage.

This is where the watt comes into its own. Energy use is measured in watts – specifically, one watt is the use of one joule of energy per second.

Every appliance is labelled with a watt use indicator. We’ve used the term for years. For instance, we’d often talk about the difference between a 60 watt and 100 watt light bulb. We just never understood what it actually meant.

In practice, if we use a 60 watt light bulb for four hours a day, we’ll use 240 watt hours a day or around 7 200 watt hours a month (7.2 kilowatt hours or kwh).

In Pietermaritzburg we pay about 52c per kwh, so we’d pay 7.2 x 52c to use this bulb, or R3.50 a month per bulb. A TV uses 150 watts an hour; so four hours a day is the equivalent of 18kwh or R9 a month. A kettle uses 2 000 watts an hour; so, assuming we use a kettle for 30 minutes a day, we’re talking about 30kwh a month or about R15 a month.

Sorry if you already know this, but understanding it was a “light bulb” moment for us. It helped us understand why we’d replaced the old light bulbs. We knew we were saving energy and simply did the “sheep” thing. CFL bulbs are commonly 15 watts. So we save 5 400 watts and R2.50 a month per bulb we use for four hours a night.

So we’re now working on our lights, making sure that we minimise our lighting-related energy use. The next step is geysers, then appliances. We use about 3 000kwh a month and hope to cut this by 60%.

l Andrew Venter is CEO of Wildlands Conservation Trust.