COOLMob project manager Nina Bailey

29 April 2014 — Environment Centre NT’s COOLMob initiative is in a growth phase, with five new energy efficiency program officers employed as part of a federally funded project to assist some of the Darwin’s most disadvantaged households to reduce their power bills.

The Smart Cooling in the Tropics project received a $2.7 million grant under the Commonwealth Low Income Energy Efficiency Program. COOLMob project manager Nina Bailey told The Fifth Estate the funds would enable them to continue a highly effective energy audit and advice program recently defunded by the Northern Territory State Government’s Power and Water authority, in addition to assisting with retrofit projects for residential tenants and collecting data on energy efficiency and tropical housing design.

COOLMob will be working with households identified by four not-for-profit community groups – Council of The Ageing NT, Carers NT, Aboriginal Housing and Melaleuca Refugee Centre – trialling the delivery of measures that can affect behaviour change through energy audits and appropriate energy efficiency products.

Ms Bailey said the project aims to deliver 480 home audits over the next two-and-half years, in addition to leaving a legacy of direct improvements to properties.

“We have the money to do quite big installations,” Ms Bailey said. “And because a lot of the [target group] rent, we will help liaise with landlords for the installation of products such as new blinds and ceiling fans. Tenants don’t have much agency [to initiate change].”

As the project will be working with a substantial number of households who speak languages other than English, the home energy audit information will be translated into key community languages. There are also plans to develop a range of information materials and web-based information including technical information developed by COOLMob for specific local conditions.

The information side of the project will also address home design, which Ms Bailey said is one of the factors considered during an audit.

“The ‘block’ style of housing design [of many newer Darwin homes] is not right for the climate. Developers are building the same style of homes in Darwin as they build in Melbourne,” she said, explaining that design including a lack of natural cross-ventilation makes mechanical cooling essential in many homes.

Gathering data to improve the national picture

Smart Cooling is also a social research project. COOLMob is working with Charles Darwin University’s Research Institute for the Environment and Livelihoods to gather and analyse data such as how people use energy and how they evaluate thermal comfort. This data will be used to assist the LIEEP program nationally to develop a picture of how low income communities use energy and can reduce their domestic consumption.

From data gathered throughout a decade of state-funded energy efficiency projects, COOLMob has identified some unique aspects to the Darwin energy use picture.

The slow shift to renewable from gas

Unlike the eastern states, Darwin and its surrounds do not rely on coal-fired power. Instead, gas-fired generators supply the main grid and, in remote areas, diesel generators are the major source. Despite the Territory’s substantial gas reserves and gas production sector, gas for electricity generation is imported from Western Australia, as all of the local gas production is exported. Additionally, according to Ms Bailey, 95 per cent of the Northern Territory area is under licenses for controversial coal seam gas (fracking) projects for export.

Bringing the gas in from interstate adds to the costs of electricity, with Ms Bailey reporting that Power and Water also cites the ageing energy infrastructure and cost of subsidising remote customers as a factor in the region’s high electricity costs per kilowatt hour.

“Less than one per cent of the Northern Territory’s energy supply is from renewable sources,” Ms Bailey said.

“There are approximately 3000 rooftop solar PV installations in Darwin, and approximately 2500 of these are residential and 500 are commercial buildings.”

Power and Water have ceased to offer consumers Green Power, instead she said they are using the funds to spend on large scale solar projects, including two new projects at Katherine.

“Katherine is better for solar power than Darwin, as in Darwin we have a lot of cloud cover,” Ms Bailey said, explaining there have also been concerns that the increase in small-scale feed-in solar projects are causing strain on the Darwin grid.

Another important consideration for solar projects in the Top End is the engineering refinements necessary to ensure installations meet the requirements for cyclone safety.

“We are keen to look at community solar, and we are currently scoping community groups and buildings [for that],” Ms Bailey said.

“Having one [centralised] grid makes us vulnerable to power outages. We had an outage in January where all of Katherine and Darwin was without power for over 12 hours from 1am in the morning. In this climate, that is very hard on people. This [kind of event] is clear evidence of the need for a decentralised power supply.

“We get a sense people from interstate and internationally are sussing us out for solar power opportunities.”

She noted that one of Darwin’s major retail centres, Casuarina Shopping centre, is currently installing one of the nation’s largest rootop solar arrays comprising 4800 panels.

In the steamy north, it’s all about cooling and pools

Ms Bailey said the average energy use of a Darwin home was 25kW a day, with some homes using as much as 60kW. She attributes this high figure to the use of airconditioning for prolonged periods, and the running of pool pumps up to 24 hours a day.

“[Our] auditors advise people they don’t have to run a pool pump for 12 to 24 hours a day – four to eight hours will do. We also advise them they can change to a more energy-efficient pump,” Ms Bailey said.

“There is a huge proportion of pool ownership in Darwin [because] you can’t swim in the ocean due to crocodiles and stingers.”

COOLMob auditors found that pool ownership was approximately 47 per cent of households audited under the state-funded program.

“We are going to do an evaluation of energy savings and CO2. The average saving is hard to figure – it seems to be anywhere from 10 per cent to 40 per cent. A 30 per cent saving is the message we [aim to] get to people,” Ms Bailey said.

Ms Bailey said that an analysis of 335 COOLmob home audits done between 2007-2012 found that the average daily energy consumption for that period was 38.2kWh per day. This is higher than the current Darwin average, which Power and Water Corporation states to be 26kWh per day, and double the national average of about 19kWh per day. For every kWh of power produced in the Northern Territory 0.75 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent is released.

The analysis showed that a savings of 10 per cent of this average 38.2kWh, would amount to a saving of 1394.3kWh per year, which equates to the abatement of about 1.04 tonnes of CO2 per home. At a 30 per cent saving, the figures translate as 4647.2kWh per year and around 3.5 tonnes of CO2 abated annually.

Water use also means energy use

Darwin’s water use also contributes to the bigger energy-use picture, due to the energy used to transport water.

Water use is particularly high for the dry part of the year, with Darwin households averaging 475 litres a day a person, in comparison to Melbourne Water’s suggested target for its customers of 155 litres a person a day.

Ms Bailey said the reasons for the high water use included the large tropical gardens, which are a feature of many homes, and the number of showers people take to feel comfortable in the hot, humid climate. At the same time, the installation of rainwater tanks to collect some of the wet season abundance has not been a priority, as the scale of a domestic tank would generally only meet one month’s worth of dry season irrigation needs for a household.

Grey water use is also not part of the popular vernacular, as the humid conditions mean sterilisation issues would be difficult to resolve for basic types of domestic systems.

Because of these factors, COOLMob have focused on demand side management, with the Water Smart project.

Where to next?

As the old adage says, “success breeds success”. Ms Bailey said COOLMob is now finding there are households who are looking for the next step in sustainability.

“We are looking at doing a sustainability hub, and obtaining funds and an architecture partner. Now we have the Smart Cooling project funding, we can keep COOLMob going, and with the current building boom [in Darwin] there is a lot of interest in sustainable design,” she said.

The organisation also participates in the nationwide annual Sustainable House day in September, and has been seeing new areas of success with a new local project, Sustainable Neighbourhoods.

“If you want to do sustainability holistically, connecting people is the next step,” Ms Bailey said.

“We do workshops with 10 households, who then form a group, and we are doing seedings of the groups around Darwin and a little way outside [town]. It’s where a lot of people are at now, they have done energy and water and now want to know the next step, and how to come together for things such as backyard solar, food swapping and keeping chickens.

“A lot of different environmental and social sustainability initiatives have come out of [Sustainable Neighbourhoods], and the groups have now moved across to Facebook [to continue momentum].

“A lot of people want to meet their neighbours and live more sustainably.”