December 2013

Uncategorized29 Dec 2013 12:45 pm


Accentuate the Negative

The image above is taken from my latest Johannesburg utility statement. The minus sign in front of Total Due signifies that rather than owing the municipality for my electricity and water, the municipality owes me. I would love to say that this is because I am producing electricity on my roof and selling it to City Power. That day is coming – slowly. It is, however, my reward for reducing electricity consumption.

I recently qualified for the LifeLine Tariff, which is available to customers who use fewer than 500 kilowatt hours a month. The rate that I pay for electricity itself came down only slightly, from R1.08 to R1.01 per kWh. The big difference is that I no longer have to pay fixed fees – Network Charge, Service Charge and Demand Side Management Levy – of R409 a month. In most months I was paying more in electricity service fees than I was for electricity. These mandatory charges create a perverse disincentive to save power. Previously, if I were to cut my consumption in half, my bill would go down by less than a quarter because of these fixed fees. Now I pay only for the electricity I use.

When I first enquired about the LifeLine Tariff, I was told that anyone using less than 500 kWh per month for six months in a row “automatically qualifies.” Nothing could be further from the truth. It took dozens of letters, emails and calls over the course of seven months to finally get my account changed on the system. The new tariff was backdated to the date of my application, which explains the credit that shows on my bill.

A prepay meter is another way to get out from under the burden of service charges. This comes with its own set of hassles, but is an alternative to the LifeLine route. If you are also a kilowatt-hour miser and have the patience to take on the bureaucracy, apply for the LifeLine tariff by emailing a letter with your account number and details on your consumption for the last six months to [email protected] If you first need to cut kilowatt hours before Jo’burg will throw you a LifeLine, keep reading Greener House.

Global Warming20 Dec 2013 12:13 pm


My article in this week’s Mail & Guardian looks at the economics of South Africa’s switchover from tin-plated steel to aluminium beverage cans. Coca-Cola and SA Breweries are already using almost 100 percent aluminium cans in Gauteng, and by 2015 they will be covering the nation with the shiny metal. Much of the story is on the business impact on the major companies involved, but I also examine the new environment for recycling.

The potential is both exciting and frightening. Here’s a brief excerpt from the article:

Aluminium industry expert Subodh Das estimates the value of used beverage cans wasting away in US landfills at $55-$80 billion—as much as the total annual turnover of BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company.

Perhaps worse, the energy wasted by not recycling those cans accounts for greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of a rather large country like Egypt or Argentina, 260-380 million tons of carbon dioxide.

In preparing the article, I worked very hard to come up with a carbon footprint for a single aluminium can made from virgin South African aluminium. Under deadline pressure I wasn’t able to work out the number with sufficient confidence, but I have since calculated that an unrecycled South African can contributes approximately 0.7 kilograms of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. To put it in more tangible terms, the pollution released to make that can is like burning a 60 watt globe for 12 hours or driving nearly 3 kilometres. The vast majority of that energy is saved if the can is recycled. When deciding whether to toss a can, imagine it 85 percent full of petrol, because that’s the equivalent of the energy that went into it.

This example is a little bit hypothetical, because you will never know whether the can in your hand was made from virgin South African aluminium. Many of the new aluminium cans are made from sheet stock imported from Brazil, where 98 percent of cans are recycled. These will have a much lower carbon footprint. If South Africa can emulate their success, the carbon footprint of locally produced aluminium can stock will fall, and my calculations will become obsolete. I won’t complain.

Uncategorized05 Dec 2013 03:24 pm

Award Presentation to Don Boroughs

with Eskom Chief Executive Brian Dames and Group Executive for Sustainability Steve Lennon

It sounds clichéd to say that winning an award was a “humbling” experience. But there is no other word to describe the effect that the Eskom eta Energy Efficiency Awards had on me last night. Sitting next to me was the runner-up in my category of Energy Savings in Households, who lives in a house that uses about R75 worth of electricity in a month. (“Why doesn’t our house use that little?” my wife whispered to me.) After the ceremony, I was chatting with a woman who managed to not only save R170 million annually in liquid propane gas purchases at Arcelor Mittal’s Saldanha Works Plant, but in the process helped rescue the factory—with more than 500 workers—from closure. So, would you like to hear about my pool pump . . . ?

I was particularly impressed with Josephine Bröhm, a high-school student in Plettenberg Bay who has created a Facebook page  that encourages teenagers to negotiate with their parents to split any savings on their electricity bill and then shows teens ways they can cut down on consumption around the house. The same concept could work with a housekeeper, as well. I successfully implemented a similar project to split the savings on my water bill with my gardener a few years ago, which I wrote about here.

Eskom has videos of each project, and I have posted two here. The one for Greener House sums up my efforts nicely, though it bizarrely pronounces my name “Barrows.” The one for Rod McGregor Mann, the runner-up in the households category, shows off his funky, wind-powered house in the Eastern Cape. (He says that his Leading Edge wind turbine is extremely quiet.)

If you want to read more about the awards, check this weekend’s Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, or