Deo Prasad

By Lynne Blundell

Sooner or later if you are involved in green buildings, someone is going to tell you to speak to Deo Prasad.

24 November 2010 – Deo Prasad has a vision. It’s a vision of a future where building materials function as renewable power generators and heat sources – and zero carbon, waste and water are the norm. Every household, precinct and city will be able to check its current carbon footprint in real time data. And he believes this future is just around the corner.

Needless to say Professor Prasad is an optimistic man – and he believes in the power of community action. Given his reputation for innovation in renewable energy technology and sustainable building design, he also knows more than most about the future possibilities of green technology.

Prasad, program director of the Master of Built Environment (sustainable development) at the University of NSW, is an international authority on sustainable buildings and cities and one of the leading advocates for sustainability in Australia. He is currently leading a major study exploring the relationship between green buildings, indoor air quality, user satisfaction and commercial returns in office buildings in Australia.

He is also the recipient of numerous awards. In 2004 he won the NSW State Government’s individual GreenGlobe Award for “showing leadership and commitment to the supply of renewable energy”.  He has also won the Federal Government’s national award for “outstanding contribution to energy related research”.  Earlier this year he led the NSW Government’s Mission to World Expo 2010 on Low Carbon Buildings and Cities.

As director of the Centre for Sustainable Built Environments at UNSW (previously called SOLARCH ) for 15 years, Prasad has led some of Australia’s most ground breaking research and development on solar energy, including Australia’s first solar village.

This year the centre was renamed The Centre for Low Carbon Buildings, Cities and Communities, reflecting the current focus on carbon reduction. Professor Prasad is leading researchers at the centre in the development of some exciting next-generation products, he told The Fifth Estate in a recent interview.

These include integrated roofing which generates both electricity and heat and provides all insulation requirements. The centre has nearly 40 industry partners including Brookfield Multiplex and Bluescope to Suntech and many design firms.

“There will also be many next-gen tools especially for precinct/urban scale zero carbon/water/waste developments,” says Prasad.

It is Prasad’s passion for designing sustainable buildings and for proving how well they work through scientific validation that drives him. And at the root of that is what this means for people and the planet. It was his interest in social sustainability that got him involved in green design in the first place.

“I grew up in Fiji and then studied architecture in New Zealand. It was the creative urge that got me started on that path but then I went back to Fiji and my first project was to help with the rehabilitation of the Banaban people. Their land on Rabe Island had been sold and dug up for phosophate and they were relocated in Fiji.

“When I started on the project I saw how dislocated they were. They had money because they were paid by the UK government for their land but they had lost everything else. This got me involved in the broader issues of social sustainability. I began to see the balance of social, cultural, environmental and economic sustainability,” says Prasad.

He then came to Australia to do post graduate studies in sustainability and ended up doing two Masters degrees and then a PhD in heat transfer in buildings. As he puts it, he has become “part of the furniture” at the UNSW, going on to run research programs and to teach.

Low carbon trigger for new technology
Prasad has spent decades on developing innovative technology. But he believes that having sophisticated tools to measure sustainable outcomes is the key to the next big leap in product innovation. That, and the recognition that the world is moving towards zero carbon targets and sustainable buildings have a key role in this.

“All the reports – IPCC, the UN, Stern, Al Gore, Garnaut – have said buildings are the most powerful way to achieve low carbon. Materials and buildings are both areas that Australia can take leadership.

“Low carbon is the next big trigger for product innovation – how to reduce carbon in steel and concrete. And then how to integrate the next generation of materials into the structure of the building. For example, instead of putting solar panels onto the roof, the roof will be the panels. They will be able to capture the heat, provide protection from the elements and meet all of the building code requirements,” says Prasad.

The next generation of materials and building products will need to meet both aesthetic and functional needs of buildings and this would require a multidisciplinary approach. It would also mean better integration of sustainable buildings, precincts and cities.

“Zero carbon, water and waste will be the next step – the three zeds. In the UK there is legislation to help achieve zero carbon and Europe is following suit. There are so many compelling reasons to do so and we [Australia] will eventually go down this path.

“Embedded carbon in materials and even in water will need to be measured. This means we will need tools so that everyone will know exactly how well they are going with carbon reduction,” says Prasad.

Currently tools such as BASIX and Green Star focus heavily on ticking the boxes and while this has its place it can result in greenwashing, he says.

“People have resorted to greenwashing because they don’t have the expertise to really measure how buildings and cities are performing in terms of carbon.

“There is already a great deal of data available out there, such as the size of your roof area, which you can see on Google, and how much waste comes out of each house, which councils already know. Then there is information on travel patterns and energy use, with geographical information systems providing data on houses, suburbs, precinct and cities.

“The next generation of tools will access this data in real time to measure how we are going,” says Prasad. “This will allow people to engage and interact with data so that they have a more sustainable future.”

These types of tools are under development right now, says Prasad, and will be validated in the next couple of years.

More emphasis is also needed on how peoples’ behaviour impacts on sustainable outcomes. For example research had shown that when people have insulation they often end up being more wasteful with power because they feel their house is more energy-efficient. Projects such as Solar Cities provided some very useful data about social interaction on these issues.

Policy reform will come with hard data
But policy reform is also necessary to encourage investment in new technologies. This will come once more data is available, Prasad says.

“In the absence of research and evidence, politicians rely on conventional wisdom, which is not particularly reliable. If good data is coming from research in Australia, this can create a feedback loop for an improvement path rather than the reactionary response we too often see from government.”

The NSW government’s recent slashing of its solar feed-in tariff from 60c a kW hour to 20c was a good example of this type of knee-jerk reaction.

“Governments need to be looking ahead. In three to four years time we’re going to have fuel poverty with some poorer people paying more than 30 per cent of their wages on electricity. They should continue with tariffs and give extra help to those who need it – instead of the same tariff for everyone it should be higher for poorer people. There should also be incentives to those who are developing the technology,” says Prasad.

It was lack of incentives for solar technology in Australia, and generous ones in China, that drove one of Deo Prasad’s colleagues at UNSW, Shi Zhengrong, back to his homeland after doing ground breaking research in Australia on solar technology. He went on to become the world’s largest producer of photovoltaic equipment and one of China’s richest men.

But despite the lack of leadership from government and the setback last year at the Copenhagen summit, Deo Prasad believes pressure for a more sustainable way of living is coming. And it will come from the community.

“We aren’t living sustainably at the moment. Our per capita consumption is one of the highest in the world and we correlate high consumption with higher standards of living. The Bhutanese [in the Himalayas] have a happiness index rather than GDP. But we’re now seeing countries like India and China following our path.

“There’s evidence that we can turn this way of thinking around but the only way this will happen is from the community up. And if we don’t act fast enough profound things will start happening through climate change,” says Prasad.

For his part, Prasad has actively promoted education of the young on sustainability. He was instrumental in developing the Sustainable Living Challenge program for high schools across Australia, which involves students undertaking one project on sustainability in any area of the curriculum. He is also pushing for greening of all university courses. With the United Nations he is involved in the Decade of Education for Sustainability which runs from 2005 to 2014.

It is from the community that the impetus will come to make the leap to zero carbon, water and waste, says Prasad. This will then push the policy change needed to drive product innovation and development, the seeds of which are already there.

And Australia is poised to be a leader in the multidisciplinary approach that will take the built environment to the next stage.

“Australia has the potential to become a leader in achieving zero carbon even though we are high end polluters and very carbon intensive at the moment. We have cleaner technologies such as solar and wind and we can build on that.”

And his greatest achievement so far?

“Just keeping the pressure on and maintaining momentum despite the ups and downs. Sustained effort in this area is the most important thing and the most exciting.”

lblundell@thefifthestate.com.au