Rebuilding in Victoria, after the bushfires

Last summer 374 people died in Victoria, almost certainly because of heat stress, more than double those who died in the tragic bushfires of 7 February.

This year Melbourne has its hottest day on record with a temperature of 46.4C and maximum temperatures in the state were 12-15 degrees above normal.

According to a new report from a coalition of green groups, Towards climate safe homes, the Case for Zero Emissions and Water Saving Homes and Neighbourhoods, housing is at the front line of dealing with major climate  impact. It is also one of the fastest growing emitters of greenhouse gasses.

On the flip side the sector has massive potential to turn the tables.

These views are contained in a new report, which has been produced by Environment Victoria in partnership with The Alternative Technology Association, Australian Conservation Foundation, Friends of the Earth Australia and Moreland Energy Foundation, and authored by former ACF campaigner, Kate Noble, now principal, Green Spark Consulting and Anne Martinelli of Anne Martinelli Consulting.

The report lays out a compelling case for how the housing sector can achieve close to zero carbon emissions, and how this could be at relatively low cost.

The alternative would be massive cost spikes for householders.

“In Victoria, water bills are set to rise by between 51 and 64 percent, adding more than $300 to the average annual water bill by 2012,” the report says.

“Brisbane households have recently faced an increase in the bulk price of water of approximately $17 a quarter to help pay for the $9 billion South East Queensland water grid.

“Higher energy prices will come at the same time as expected spikes in food prices and a CSIRO prediction for petrol to reach $8 a litre within the next 10 years.

“New homes will need to endure conditions that are unprecedented, while both new and existing homes will need substantial improvement if they are to help us reduce emissions and remain liveable with more extreme weather and higher energy and water costs,” the report says.

The Council of Australian Governments’ agreement for housing to go to six stars is a good start, but it is only “half a step,” the authors say.

To avoid catastrophic climate change and to prepare our houses for predicted temperature and price shocks, they need to be 7 and 8 stars.

But new homes won’t be enough to create the necessary change.

“According to the report an estimated 1.9 million Victorian homes built before 2006 still have energy ratings of 2 Stars or less, while at least 50 per cent of Melbourne households do not have water-efficient showerheads and 20 per cent still have at least one single flush toilet.

Yet the costs to achieve major turnaround are not prohibitive.

Following are some key excerpts from the report:

Cost

Several recent studies have demonstrated that 7-star thermal performance can be achieved with an upfront cost of around $6000 more than the current 5-star requirements, delivering much lower running costs.

The Perth 8-Star House, based on the findings of a research program undertaken by Think Brick Australia in partnership with the University of Newcastle and the Australian Research Council, has demonstrated that an 8-star rating is achievable at a comparable cost to conventional housing.

The house, which uses 76 percent less energy and 72 percent less water than an average Perth home, cost $200,000 to build and has significantly lower lifetime running costs than a conventional house.

This is much less than the wildly inflated figures of $10,000 repeatedly quoted by peak housing industry organisations, and represents a small percentage of the average home purchase cost while locking in long term energy cost savings.

An unpublished study by RMIT’s Lifetime Affordable Housing project found 7-star homes to be significantly more affordable than less efficient 5-star homes once lifetime household running costs were included, Horne, Ralph (2009). In housing 7 stars are cheaper than 6 stars – and sell for more.

The study modelled the extra cost of a range of options from 5.5 to 7.4 star standards, along with energy bill savings. The report found the best cost outcome to be a 7.2-star standard, rather than the star standard being proposed by COAG.

The 7.2-star standard provided a simple payback of seven years with an internal rate of return of 18 per cent, even without taking into account other factors such as extra comfort experienced in better homes, the reduction in marginal load on the grid, and the higher resale value of the house (which some estimates put at around $9,000 extra resale value for each star increase).

Standards

Improved standards for new homes must therefore be complemented by a concerted program to upgrade the energy and water effciency of our existing housing stock as well.

Just some of the challenges will include peak demand and electricity blackouts that will be worse just when energy intensive cooling will be most in demand.

At risk will be the failure of infrastructure at high temperatures, and the overload of peak demand due to over-reliance on air-conditioners.

Emissions

While the building sector is not the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions, it is one of the fastest-growing sources. By 2010, emissions from buildings are estimated to increase by 48 percent over the 1990 level.

A study by George Wilkenfeld found that “A major driver for increasing emissions from lighting, and a restraint on reductions from heating and cooling, is the increasing size of dwellings – the average new dwelling is estimated to have a 30 percent larger net conditioned floor area than the average existing dwelling,” the report says.

Share of emissions by economic sector, Victoria 2005

WASTE 3.4 per cent

OTHER 1.0 per cent

FREIGHT TRANSPORT 5 per cent

PASSENGER TRANSPORT 13.9 per cent

RESIDENTIAL 17.5 per cent

COMMERCIAL 15.9 per cent

MANUFACTURING 31.0 per cent

PRIMARY PRODUCTION (NET) 12.4 per cent

– From George Wilkenfeld and Associates (2008)

Upside

A recent study by Environment Victoria estimated that retro-fitting 1 million homes – half of Victoria’s housing stock – for energy- and water-efficiency over five years could create up to 6900 jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 3 million tonnes and save 32,500 million litres of water each year.”

Environment Victoria study estimated that Melbourne could save 105 billion litres of water per year by 2020 with accelerated water efficiency measures, thus reducing the need for the planned 150 billion litre desalination plant being built by the Victorian Government at Wonthaggi.”