South Africa's energy supply emergency may have made us worry that we were headed for the "Dark" Ages unless we got rid of every single appliance we own, but the truth is we can make an enormous difference just by making some easy changes to how we use our energy supply.
The kitchen, with all of its heating and cooling gadgets, is an excellent place to start.
It all starts with a bit of pre-planning. If you can think about what you want to cook for dinner the day before, you can take it out of the freezer and let it defrost in the fridge. An added advantage here is that you can spend the whole day dreaming up fabulous additions to the meal, and wow your family with your Nigella Lawson creativity.
Believe it or not, the most powerful energy-saving gadget in your kitchen is your humble microwave.
Microwaves use a lot of energy while in use, but cut down on your cooking time dramatically. Overall, microwaves use only about half as much energy as conventional stoves (as if you needed an excuse to buy those Woolies instant meals).
When you are cooking in your oven, the big trick is to keep cooking time down. Try to avoid the urge to peek: every time you open the door about 20% of the heat inside is lost.
Also, don't bother preheating the oven unless you are baking. When the food is nearly ready, turn the oven off and let the trapped heat do the rest. Make sure that air can circulate properly by keeping the oven racks clear and by resisting the compulsion to use foil. And finally, make sure that the seal on the oven door is intact and closes tightly, so that all of the heat stays in there.
The most efficient (and quickest) way to boil water is in a kettle, but make sure that you only boil as much as you need. When using a stove, try to use pots and pans that completely cover the stove plate so that heat isn’t lost, where it serves no purpose other than to make your brow drip.
If you put lids on your pots, you will be able to turn the temperature a bit lower, and can turn it off completely a few minutes before your food is done. Another handy tip is that if your stovetop is dirty, it will absorb heat instead of reflecting it back to the cookware, so keep ‘em shiny.
If you love stews and casseroles, it is worth investing in a pressure cooker; they can halve your cooking time and your energy use. When buying pots and pans, invest in sturdy metal with slightly concave bottoms (when they heat up, the metal expands and the bottom flattens out).
Buy copper-bottomed pans, but use ceramic in the oven. Throw out cookware when it becomes warped – you can save about 50% by ensuring that the base of your pan is in full contact with the element.
It sits silently in the corner of your kitchen, looking innocent. Few would guess that your fridge is one of the biggest power guzzlers in your home.
Keep it from eating you out of house and home by adjusting its thermostat according to the season. To find out what your setting should be, place a thermostat in a jar of water and leave it in the fridge overnight. In the morning, it should read between 1 and 5 degrees Celsius. The fridge setting can usually be reduced in winter.
If your freezer is only half full, plug the gaps with empty milk bottles filled with water (when these freeze, they will help to keep the temperature down so your freezer doesn’t have to work so hard). Make sure that your freezer is defrosted at least twice a year.
Ensure that the cold stays inside your fridge by checking the seal regularly. Replace if torn, and clean if it becomes caked in food. Don’t place your fridge near the stove, dishwasher, or in direct sunlight (it will have to work twice as hard) – and make sure that air can circulate around it properly. One large refrigerator is cheaper to run than two small ones. And finally, if you are still holding onto your big, square 1982 model, replacing it with a modern one is one of the single best ways you can save electricity: old fridges are the worst energy gluttons.
Remember, energy efficiency is not about giving up the electricity you need; it’s about cutting down on what you are wasting. They may seem like insignificant savings, but if we all do our bit, little savings will soon accumulate into enormous savings. Your bank balance will see the effect, as will our economy, and more importantly, the environment our children will inherit.