Having high energy bills can put a real strain on your finances. But there are ways you can drastically reduce your energy usage and save money, without making huge lifestyle changes. Here are 5 little-known renewable energy hacks I've discovered that have helped me cut my energy bills in half:

1. Install Solar Panels

Installing solar panels on your roof is one of the best investments you can make to slash your energy bills long-term. The upfront cost can seem daunting, but solar prices have dropped 70% in the last 10 years. There are also federal and state tax credits and rebates to offset the upfront cost.

Once installed, the solar energy your panels generate is free. On sunny days, your panels could produce more electricity than you need, which gets fed back into the grid. This can cancel out the electricity you pull from the grid on cloudier days. Many utility companies also give you a credit for the excess solar electricity you generate but don't use.

Over the lifetime of your solar panel system, you could save tens of thousands of dollars in energy costs. The return on investment makes solar power very worthwhile.

2. Switch to LED Light Bulbs

Replacing all of your traditional incandescent and CFL light bulbs with LED bulbs can trim your lighting costs significantly. LED bulbs use at least 75% less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent bulbs.

Although LEDs are more expensive upfront, they end up paying for themselves within a year because of their energy efficiency and longevity. I replaced all my home's bulbs with LEDs last year, and my lighting electricity costs plummeted by 60%.

3. Install a Smart Thermostat

Having a smart thermostat like Nest or Ecobee completely automates and optimizes your home heating and cooling. Smart thermostats learn your temperature preferences and schedule to maximize your comfort and minimize your energy use.

Studies show smart thermostats can cut your HVAC energy use by 10-30%. You can control a smart thermostat remotely via smartphone, so you never waste energy heating or cooling an empty home. I installed a Nest last winter, and it paid for itself in less than 6 months through energy savings.

4. Seal Air Leaks

Sealing air leaks around your home with caulk, weather stripping, and insulation can reduce your heating and cooling costs by up to 20% according to the Department of Energy. This simple DIY work minimizes the heated/cooled air escaping through cracks and gaps.

I had an energy audit done on my home which revealed several problem areas that were wasting energy. After sealing these leaks, my heating and cooling bills dropped by 15% which more than covered the small cost of materials.

5. Insulate Water Heater and Pipes

Insulating your electric water heater with an insulation blanket is one of the most cost effective energy-saving measures. It can reduce standby heat losses by 25-45% and quickly pay for itself. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions.

Insulating exposed hot water pipes reduces heat loss as hot water moves through the pipes. This allows you to lower your water heater's temperature while still getting comfortably hot water throughout your home. Insulate pipes in unheated spaces like basements and attics first.

I insulated my electric water heater and hot water pipes last fall, and have already noticed a 10% drop in my water heating costs.

The best part about all of these renewable energy hacks is that they quickly pay for themselves through energy savings. Then you get to enjoy dramatically lower utility bills for years to come. Give these simple yet highly effective tips a try, and you'll be shocked at how much smaller your next energy bill is.