Gavin Gilchrist: “We need a new NASA-style energy savings agency to pick the best state-based energy efficiency schemes and funding programs and make them national.”

By Gavin Gilchrist

Think about this. Just over 50 years ago when President Eisenhower and the US Congress realised they had a serious technological and political challenge – matching the Soviet Union in the space race – did they respond by imposing a new tax on non-space travel in the hope that “market forces” would somehow respond by delivering more space travel?

No way. They created a new national agency, one that was well-funded, prestigious, and attractive to the best and the brightest US scientists, managers and engineers. And they gave it a clear goal: beat the USSR in space. So they created NASA, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

Australia in 2009 doesn’t need a NASA. But it desperately needs a NESA. A National Energy Savings Agency. Here’s why.

The cheapest, fastest way to cut Australia’s greenhouse emissions is by saving energy through the accelerated adoption of energy-effective processes and practices.

Like better lighting control in offices, for example. You only need to look at our CBD skylines each night to understand Australia could save lots of energy and carbon pollution by putting in advanced lighting controls. And that’s just the waste you can see.

Saving energy is the carbon pollution reduction scheme that pays you to join. Whether you believe the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, McKinsey Consultants’ landmark report last year on the costs of different carbon-cutting technologies, or the major consultancy on the issue endorsed by all State Labor Governments and the Howard Government in 2003, the findings are much the same.

Promoting faster adoption of energy efficiency by industry, owners of big buildings and by us at home is the fastest, most profitable, and most job-creating approach to dealing with climate change.

The problem with energy efficiency, however, is that it’s fiddly. It requires business to change well-established practices. It costs money up front. And it’s not as cool to look at as solar panels. When did you last hear of a Government Minister opening a new high-efficiency air-conditioning plant room?

A report to COAG last October found that, compared to 11 similar advanced countries, between 1973 to 1998 Australia achieved less than half the rate of energy efficiency improvement of the average in other countries (0.7 per cent a year compared with 1.6 per cent). From 1990 to 2005 Australia’s rate of improvement of energy efficiency picked up a bit but was still only two-thirds that of the other countries.

Our record, in short, is woeful. Our carbon-polluting energy has been cheap and so we’ve wasted it. As a nation, we have chronically under-invested in saving energy. We’ve left it to market forces with minimal regulation and that market has failed to deliver.

We need a new approach. Just putting a modest price on carbon won’t help much in the short-term. If only it were that easy South Australia and Western Australia would have the most energy efficient buildings, homes and factories in the nation because they pay up to twice the price of power than in eastern Australia. There’s no evidence that’s the case.

That’s why we need NESA. The old federal-state agreement on energy savings, the National Framework for Energy Efficiency, has failed to deliver anything like what’s needed. Look at its website: www.nfee.gov.au. Be unimpressed. It reads as though nothing has happened since the end of 2007.

We need a new NASA-style energy savings agency to pick the best state-based energy efficiency schemes and funding programs and make them national. Scrap the rest.

There are too many programs that today create a green-tape nightmare for national firms who have to comply with them, and make applying for funding more time-consuming, and hence costly, than it should be.

We should transfer all the best state energy-efficiency officials into NESA so there is just one nationally-driven but regionally-focused agency with a clear mandate to deliver an agreed number of thousands of tonnes of reductions in carbon pollution every year through saving energy.

At the same time it would drive the creation of a thriving energy efficiency sector delivering those savings and new green jobs – and, in a few years, a set of skills we can export to a world keen to follow our lead.

We need a single, national energy efficiency reporting scheme. A single national source of funding for innovative projects. And a single set of mandates that will enforce tough efficiency standards for homes, appliances and buildings.

We need new business partnerships between NESA and the energy efficiency sector, which has the experience but lacks a decent market.

Now that it’s become clear over the past year that market forces can only deliver so much, we have to realise that the carbon pollution reduction scheme will only deliver so much. Market forces would never have got Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the moon.

Gavin Gilchrist is managing director of Big Switch Projects