Waiting for the power company
Are you still waiting for the power company to reduce the cost of power? Are you listening to the news reports that say ‘Government cites waste-to-energy to solve energy problem’ or ‘New technology will reduce BPL (Bahamas Power and Light Company Ltd.) cost by 50 percent’, and thinking, ‘I hope they get their act together soon, because the cost of electricity’s killing me’? Is that you? Or are you the one that says, ‘There’s nothing they can do about the cost of power. We don’t produce oil, so we’re stuck with the cost of our supply. We just have to pay what we have to pay’? Or are you the one in a thousand who has already made a commitment to solving your own energy problem? I hope you are, because it will probably be a long time before the power company reduces the rates it charges, not only because of the cost of fuel, but also because of the cost of its debt. So you and I must decide how we can reduce the cost of power for ourselves.
This is an article about ways to reduce the cost of energy to power the buildings we build, whether for domestic or commercial purposes. It is written because we seem to have forgotten things our parents took for granted, things that allowed them to pay for our expensive schooling with a fraction of the wealth you and I enjoy, in a world that was, in fact, a lot less friendly. You see, they began their energy saving plan with the simple principle: the cheapest energy is energy you don’t use. They had been born into a world where electric power was scarce, so comfortable conditions had to be created through design. So, with little or no schooling, and only the lessons of the sea to call on, they designed and built the buildings in which you and I were quite comfortable when we were children. Today, the environmentalists call that kind of approach “responsible design”.
So today, we will take an abbreviated look at two ways to address the high cost of electricity bills: responsible design and the use of alternative sources of energy. For the design discussion, I will refer to two buildings designed by me and one you are all familiar with, which you may feel was not, in fact, designed. Let’s begin with a look at a house at Love Beach, designed about 30 years ago. The clients had a great site, one that overlooked both the sea and the airport, on a ridge that ran roughly east–west. To begin the design process, we created a diagram that looked like a boomerang, and showed how we would try to capture the southeast breezes. The house has functioned without air conditioning for those 30-odd years, simply because of that diagram and one other tradition in Bahamian houses: it is never more than two rooms deep. This also means that there is seldom a need for electric lights during the day, as the sunlight penetrates into all of the usable spaces. By using a double louver as the protection for the windows, we have also reduced the cost of hurricane protection. Here we took a different approach to the traditional requirement that no openings should be exposed to either the elements or to the direct penetration of the sun. Rather than shutters, we used the exterior solid louvers for shade as well as hurricane protection and the interior glass louvers to control the flow of the breeze, creating a very sophisticated low-energy approach.
The first commercial building I’ll draw your attention to is the popular Poop Deck East. It is a simple building, converted into a restaurant overlooking the sea. It is a very successful business, partially because it provides a relaxed, comfortable environment in a tropical setting, and partly because of the reduced overhead because of not providing air conditioning. That, in turn, is made possible by an open door on the south side of the building and an open eastern end of the porch that is also the dining area. Imagine the savings they achieve by not having to air condition their primary money-making space.
The other commercial building I will cite is the National Insurance Headquarters Building, now the Clifford Darling Building on Baillou Hill Road. The building was designed to use as little energy as possible. First, all public business is transacted on the ground floor, around an open courtyard. The key is, though, that the whole public area is un-air conditioned. The building is designed to invite the southeast breeze through the east-facing main entrance – originally open to the full breeze – which then rises over the cafeteria, cooling the space and removing any stale air. Further, there are no areas of open glass on the building’s exterior for the sun to hit, as the section of the building shades the windows on the north, east and south sides, and our big, high-tech shade structure shades the west-facing windows in the afternoon. The ground floor exterior windows are shaded by solid louvers.
Of course, there are other ways in which the cost of operating a building is influenced by the design, but it is enough, I think, to make the point that design is the first line of offense in the reduction of the cost of energy in buildings, and owners might begin to look at the use of design for this purpose, and the cost of design as an investment.
The second line of offense is the use of alternative sources of power to replace the utility company’s supply. But before I discuss alternatives, I should address how you might manage your power use in the first place. In several studies, it has been indicated that by simply knowing, in real time, how much and where you are using energy, a reduction of up to 16 percent is observed. That means that if your bill is $500 a month, you could reduce your bill by $80 a month without doing anything, just by knowing how much power you are using minute-by-minute. You need no new technology, no new infrastructure, nothing. You can save up to 16 percent of your present bill just by becoming conscious of how you are using power. So the first thing to recommend is an energy monitor. These record consumption in real time, and can even be monitored via the Internet on your phone.
On the domestic front, perhaps the easiest way to save money is to install a solar water heater. Most people know that up to 30 percent of their bill is for heating water. On our $500-a-month house, that’s $150 a month, or $1,800 a year. Within two years, you’ve paid for the water heater, and the next 18 years are free, except for the cost of negligible maintenance.
Many of you have a generator for when the power is off. It may have only cost you a thousand dollars, but the cost of fuel over five years, at $6 a gallon and rising, makes the idea of putting a part of your house on a solar electricity (PV) system pretty attractive. For example, you could create a panel that has the things you presently use your generator for, plus, say, outdoor lighting.
Commercially, businesses that use hot water, like laundromats, beauty parlors and small resorts, could similarly benefit from solar systems, as well as partial PV systems for, say, all lighting and power. Unfortunately, it will be some time before you see the power company encouraging the government to allow grid-tie systems, so selling back to them, although now legal we are told, may not happen soon. But that does not make having a PV system uneconomical. A $15,000 investment could pay for itself in three to five years at current rates.
• Patrick Rahming & Associates is a full service design firm providing architectural, planning and design services throughout The Bahamas and the northern Caribbean. Visit its website at www.pradesigns.com and like its Facebook page. The firm’s mission is to help its clients turn their design problems into completed projects through a process of guided decision-making, responsible environmental advice and expert project administration.