People complain about high electric bills almost as often as they complain about the price of gas. And for two good reasons. First, utilities consistently raise their electric rates — not only for inflation, but also to increase their profits. So even if you don’t change your habits, your electric bills will generally keep increasing (like my waistline). Depending on where you live, these rate increases can average 3% -7% per year. The second reason is that we are using more and more electricity. Our 21st century lifestyle is much more energy intensive: we have more appliances, electric vehicles, electronic toys and cellphones, use heat pumps for space conditioning and hot water, and rely on more air conditioning as the climate gets hotter.

The average electricity consumption in single family homes in the US is 900 kwh per month. Although the average electricity cost around the country is 13.5 cents per kwh, there is a tremendous cost variation depending on location, climate, and cost of living. For example, in Hawaii, the average electricity cost is 33 cents per kwh. The official data for California indicates that the average cost of electricity is 20 cents per kwh. I question these averages because when I look at PG&E’s current electric rate, the baseline rate tier is 20 cents per kwh. Tier 2 electric rates (up to 400% of baseline electricity or about 400 kwh) is 27 cents a kwh. Tier 3 electric rates, defined as “super users” are 40 cents per kwh. If you require a lot of air conditioning, have a swimming pool, a bunch of networking and home entertainment equipment, or an electric vehicle, congratulations: you are likely a “super user.” Once you are in the super user tier — over about 1300 kwh per month — you are paying 40 cents for every kwh you use.

Obviously, if your home has a sunny exposure, solar makes great sense. But many people do not have that option. So what can you do? The first step is to find out what is causing those high electric bills. Buy or borrow a gadget called a “Kill A Watt Meter” and do some electricity sleuthing around your home. Some of the electricity hogs that I’ve found over the years include a defective AC compressor motor, keeping the temperature too cool in the summer and too hot in the winter (the fan motor in your furnace uses a lot of electricity), pool pumps running more than required, old refrigerators, vampire energy loads, and an abundance of electronic gadgets (including lighting, security, music and networking systems).

For more about the clever and insidious ways that our electricity providers separate us from our hard-earned dollars, tune in to this week’s Energy Show.