Murray Hogarth, Michael Sachse, Yann Burden and Amy Kean

5 March 2013 — The Alliance to Save Energy Summer Study in Sydney last week was unpicking the briar patch of the many different ways to cut energy.

Plenary sessions focused on the big picture, with NSW Environment and Heritage Minister Robyn Parker voicing NSW’s aspirational target to be Australia’s most energy efficient state by 2015.

Kateri Callahan, president of the US Alliance to Save Energy, shared the Alliance’s goal to double US energy efficiency by 2030 which has now been adopted by US President Obama. Given that energy demand in the US is set to double by this time, efficiency is going to be the backbone of the solutions.

A detailed session on commercial buildings was chaired by Siobhan Toohill of Pure and Applied, and Beck Dawson of Investa Property Group. In the session, a discussion emerged around technology and people, and some work in this area seems to ask can the technology replace people?

Robyn Parker

First up, Craig Roussac and Jesse Steinfeld, both from Buildings Alive, spruiked the benefits of building manager feedback, peer learning and competition. Drawing on a recent meta-analysis of 26 large commercial offices, they demonstrated that fixed plant changes only represent half the story in building energy performance.

Significant and lasting cuts were achieved through behavior changes driven by simple feedback to the building manager such as how the building consumption has changed and how they compare to similar nearby buildings.

Josh Wall of the CSIRO overviewed recent developments in automated heating, ventilation and airconditioning commissioning technology. His central message was that commissioning can’t be a “set and forget” process and requires attention over the life of the building. He echoed the proposition that commissioning and fine-tuning is the key to low energy buildings. With an extensive suite of automated fault detection and diagnostics tools emerging, CSIRO has established a new research program exploring the cost-benefit of these systems.

Building on the theme, Peter Dickinson of Building IQ followed to discuss their sophisticated automated building control system. By describing the myriad factors that contribute to building performance Peter suggested that building set point optimisation was too complex for humans, but machine learning can significantly reduce costs and energy requirements.

The head of the Energy Efficiency Unit at the International Energy Agency, Robert Tromop, then broadened the conversation to the discuss the policy context of building energy efficiency. He began by characterising the global state of building energy efficiency policy, highlighting the significant global opportunity for building energy savings in the order of 60 per cent. He emphasised the need for an integrated policy response comprising effective energy codes, labeling schemes, and incentives schemes, and the benefits of taking an urban systems approach that extends well beyond the building.

Tom Roper, of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council and Climate Institute, followed with an argument that a carbon price alone was not enough to promote building energy efficiency – a portfolio of policies including minimum standards, tax incentives, building code improvements and more is needed. He concluded by advocating a shift in building design, towards designing for the future climate rather than the historic climate. “We can no longer afford business as usual,” he said.

A lively debate followed on relationship between technology and people and whether building managers will one day be replaced by automated processes. The panelists agreed that the role of building managers is shifting from “tinkerers” overwhelmed with the day-to-day grind of fine tuning set points to highly trained professionals charged with operating a heady mix of complex technologies. The conversation also picked up on the important role of information, peer learning, competition, and collaboration in realising the shift toward energy efficient and high performing buildings.

The answer to the question does not seem to be that technology has to replace people, but rather or that the people who operate buildings are developing new skills, using these new tools.

John McKibbin is a research consultant at the University of Technology Sydney’s Institute for Sustainable Futures.