14 July 2010 – This week the federal government is expected to announce a national energy efficiency scheme following months of consultation with industry and numerous submissions from stakeholders. But will the scheme bring the drive that is needed to change the way we think about and use energy, and are we taking any of this seriously enough? The answer to the latter part of the question from those working in sustainable design and advocacy is a resounding no. We need to get serious – and fast – they say.

With the residential sector responsible for 17.6 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions, according to figures from the Department of Climate Change, improving energy efficiency in Australian homes was to be a big policy drive for the Rudd-led government. Instead it proved to be a thorn in its side with the home insulation program, green loans and solar panel schemes all unravelling.

Then there was the Council of Australian Governments’ commitment to increase the minimum housing energy requirement from 5 to 6 Stars, but even that is proving difficult to get over the line, with the states and territories stalling over technicalities.

It all sounded pretty straight forward last year when COAG agreed to increase energy efficiency requirements for new residential buildings to six stars, or equivalent, nationally in the 2010 update of the Building Code of Australia, as well as introducing new efficiency requirements for hot water systems and lighting.

But 12 months down the track progress has been slow. There is not yet uniform agreement across the states and territories. “Negotiations” are ongoing, and there is considerable variation in what the states have agreed to introduce, despite the COAG directive.

Caroline Pidcock: “We need to build smaller and build better.”

Caroline Pidcock, a leading sustainability and architectural commentator and current industry representative member of the Australian Building Codes Board, says it is time Australia got serious about energy efficiency and the states and territories stopped fiddling around.

“COAG has made the directive for building codes to be updated nationally but state ministers don’t seem to understand the implications of COAG. It is very contradictory,” says Pidcock.

A number of tools are used to determine energy efficiency ratings in Australia, including the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) which uses AccuRate software developed by the CSIRO. Under NatHERS, star ratings are determined by energy consumption per unit area in a regional “climate zone” based on extremes of local weather conditions.

There is considerable variation between the star ratings in the different states. According to Pidcock, the “Protocol for House Energy Rating Software”, indicates a 6 star house in Melbourne has an energy load three times the energy load for a 6 star house in Sydney East, while a 6 star house in Darwin has an energy load nearly 10 times that of the 6 star house in Sydney East.

All this refers to the potential operation of the house – the energy used depends entirely on how the occupants use the house.

While it is necessary to allow for climate differences, some of the considerations are more about economic considerations than achieving energy savings, says Pidcock.

“We’re really just fiddling around the edges in Australia [when it comes to achieving energy efficiency]. In the UK they have mandated that by 2016 all houses will have zero emissions.

“Serious regulation makes people react in a serious way. On my recent trip to Europe it was obvious that the trend there is for strict regulations with no ifs or maybes.

“We do have a country with varying climates so some moderation is needed – there is much more difficulty achieving energy efficiency in tropical climates and more work needs to be done on this but we need to get serious.”

Strong political leadership and a bi-partisan approach in the UK, with a 10 year model for energy efficiency targets, has given all industries clarity for the future and clear pathways to escalate change, unlike the latest consensus approach of the federal government, says Pidcock.

“It is not about consensus. All the data [on climate change] shows we need to act and this needs strong political leadership, not consensus. Businesses need clear direction so they can export equipment, materials and services – the rest of the world is overtaking us and we’ll be left debating it.”

The resistance to change by housing and building industry groups is not helping either, says Pidcock. The Housing Industry Association and Master Builders Association were both critical of the timing of the upgrade from five to six stars for housing, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis which impacted on the construction sector.

The MBA, in its recent submission to the Prime Minister’s Task Group on energy efficiency, says it is concerned the government’s decision to delay the emissions trading scheme will put extra pressure on the building sector to reduce emissions. It also wants the emphasis of energy efficiency upgrades to be on existing housing stock not new construction.

“Since new building replaces only about two per cent of the stock each year, Master Builders strongly recommends that the Government’s policy focus should be on retrofitting the nearly $3 trillion ($3,000 billion) of the existing stock of buildings to make them more energy efficient and therefore less carbon intensive,” it says in its submission.

There is no doubt that addressing existing housing stock is vitally important, says Pidcock, but so is building better new houses.

“Existing building stock needs a lot of attention and in Europe they are really addressing it. But that doesn’t alter the need for more stringency with new housing – we need to build smaller and build better. The focus should be on passive design, with better quality doors and windows as well as insulation.”

“What people must understand is that it doesn’t cost much more to go to higher star ratings and the benefits of doing so far outweigh these costs. We are facing a future where energy and water prices are going to be much higher and there will be a scarcity of fuel – we need to be preparing for this,” says Pidcock.

Queensland architect Adrian Just agrees that Australian residential energy regulations could be tougher and this would push materials and product manufacturers to be more innovative. But he says there are signs that strong competition in the Queensland building sector is pushing building companies to overtake the minimum energy efficiency regulations.

Director of Sunshine Coast firm Archicology Architects, Just chairs a environmental committee of the industries group for the Queensland government and is on the sustainability committee for the Institute of Architects. Queensland has introduced the minimum 6 Star into its building code. But Just says there is considerable variation across the state in what is being designed and that the stipulations on energy sometimes reward the wrong things.

“Queensland is sometimes seen as being a bit slower in the uptake of energy efficient design. A lot of the modeling has been done in the southern states so this makes it a bit more difficult. And humidity between south and north Queensland is also very different. There are some award winning houses in the far north that wouldn’t comply with energy ratings in the way their building operates – some might whack a big photovoltaic system on the roof and so they get the points but the building may not work properly,” says Just

“It really isn’t rocket science – if you get the basics of a building working well with the layout and openings right it should work well. Good passive design will get you 80 to 85 per cent there.”

Apartments missing out on regulation

The building codes could be pushed much higher than six stars as it “really is not that onerous” says Just. A major flaw in the COAG directive was the omission of apartments and town houses, which account for a large chunk of new housing construction in south east Queensland. He does see signs that the market, in some cases, is overtaking regulation, with project home builders differentiating themselves in the competitive Sunshine Coast market by being sustainable.

A good example in the region, he says, is kit home manufacturer Thompson Sustainable Homes  that is producing 9 Star kit homes for around $150,000 to $200,000 in its Nambour factory. Another is project home builder, Dixon Homes, that is offering a home package with a 1.5kW solar photovoltaic system thrown in.

“The industry is starting to show some initiative but what I would really like to see is more being done by the big developers – the Stocklands and Lend Leases who develop enormous tracts of land and then just leave them without stipulating what sort of houses should be built. Why not have display homes that are 10 Star to show some leadership?” asks Just.

Why not indeed? This is something NSW government developer Landcom is running with in its Eco-Living development (see our story on this) where it is building three different examples of sustainable homes.

Adrian Just

Adrian Just also believes existing housing stock could easily be made more sustainable through simple measures such as insulation – something the federal government got right in principle with its insulation program, if not in practice.

“It’s a great pity that program [home insulation] fell over because it’s the simple things that make a huge difference,” says Just.

Demand management the key

The Total Environment Centre is hoping the government gets it right on energy efficiency when cabinet considers energy efficiency programs this week. TEC executive director Jeff Angel wants to see demand management included in any scheme.

“The government must commit to ending overall growth in demand by at least 2015 and then reducing it up to and beyond 2020. This will require an energy intensity improvement target of 50 per cent by 2020, as the economy and population continue to grow. An ambitious energy efficiency target is achievable if supported by an emissions trading scheme,” said Angel.

The government is expected to announce a national energy efficiency scheme this week, and TEC is calling for a 50 per cent energy intensity improvement target from 2010 levels by 2020 and the inclusion of annual peak demand reduction targets, mandated for distribution networks. To ensure cost-effective reductions, peak demand reduction would be targeted to areas flagged for expensive expansion.

“For too long Australia’s energy ministers have let the National Electricity Market run rampant, creating the rising energy demand and spiraling energy sector emissions the country now faces. Prime Minister Julia Gillard must establish some climate change credibility and step in.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au