The proposed Zoned Energy Rating Label for refrigerative residential airconditioners.

More than a million are sold in Australia every year, the number of households with them has doubled in the past 15 years, they’re seen as an evil that pushes up demand on our networks, yet the energy efficiency label for household airconditioners is based on a test now over 30 years old and outdated.

But that’s about to change, bringing Australia into line with the United States, China, the European Union, Japan, South Korea and Canada.

The expected benefits to Australian consumers from the proposed change are staggering: just over $1 billion in lower power bills and carbon emissions over the next 14 years after taking into account the costs to government and suppliers of making the change. The cumulative carbon savings will be six million tonnes.

The problem with the existing residential airconditioner energy-efficiency label, first mandated in 1987, is that it’s based on energy efficiency as tested with the machine running full-speed in cooling mode when the outside air temperature is 35 degrees Celsius and, if heating, when the outside temperature is 7°C.

This was fine back in the day when airconditioners had fixed speed motors. Then they were either simply on or off. Today, most have a variable-speed motor, which means the equipment is usually running at less than full speed.

Energy efficiency regulators have not caught up with the changes in technology.

Gemma Godwin, from the Department of Industry, Science and Innovation’s Appliance Energy Efficiency Branch, told the 2016 Australian Summer Study on Energy Productivity in Sydney last Wednesday that this meant consumers were not receiving the information needed to make informed product choices.

“So these sorts of ill-informed decisions can lead to a lack of amenity,” Ms Godwin said. “So people can choose a product that doesn’t have sufficient power to heat or cool their properties, or can cost more to purchase because they’re buying an incorrectly sized product or simply that the product won’t work, which can lead to a lack of trust in brand or technology if these products aren’t performing as expected.”

The current label makes most airconditioners appear more efficient that they actually are across the real-world temperatures at which they operate. The regulatory impact statement on the change, now open for public comment, says “this means a product that rates well at 35°C and 7°C may not be the best option in the hot-humid climate of Darwin, or may struggle to heat effectively in the very cold conditions of Canberra or parts of New Zealand”.

The statement reveals that of the 2539 airconditioners registered with the Equipment Energy Efficiency program, only 104 models declare their performance at 2°C. Of these, 65 show a decrease in capacity, which means they don’t deliver as much heat as the consumer would expect. As well, their energy efficiency is between six and 40 per cent lower than expected, with an average of 27 per cent lower efficiency.

To address this, the Australia-New Zealand Equipment Energy Efficiency program, which is run by the Australian Government, is proposing a new “Zoned Energy Rating Label”, which divides Australia into three climate zones: “Hot”, which covers Brisbane and Darwin; “Average”, which includes Adelaide, Perth and Sydney; and “Cold”, which covers Canberra, Hobart, Melbourne and New Zealand. Consumers will see which is the best product for their climate.

The benefit-to-cost ratio of the proposed changes is calculated to be 4.3 to 1. That is, the energy bill savings to consumers, and costed carbon savings, are 4.3 times greater than the cost to industry and government of implementing the changes.

The estimates include a price on the carbon savings at a fixed $13.95 a tonne, based on the first Emissions Reduction Fund auction price but reduced by 25 per cent to account for a potential “rebound effect” whereby households may decide to use their airconditioning a little more because they believe it’s so efficient.

Given no rise in the value of the carbon savings till 2030 was modelled, this is a very conservative savings estimate.

“Even without changing existing models, we’re going to get some efficiency benefits just because products which don’t work in cold for instance aren’t going to be marketed there any more, and suppliers can shift those models to where they’re going to perform sufficiently,” Ms Godwin told the Summer Study.

“And it’s also going to give manufacturers actual incentives to produce products that are going to perform well in these varied climates.”

Better late than never, but have those responsible – the Australian Government, all states and territories and the New Zealand government – in this case acted in the interests of both the consumer and the climate by taking so long to make this change?

We have an easy win that will cut carbon emissions by six million tonnes for a net saving to the Australian community of over $1 billion. Shouldn’t this have been a priority? The European Union did this three years ago.

Public submissions on the regulatory impact statement close on 18 March.

Gavin Gilchrist is a former technology writer, author, SEDA manager and MD of Big Switch Projects who’s now in the market for new opportunities.

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  1. A great bit of progress and logical thinking just a point of sale label.

    Going further, how hard would it be to have the a/c remote indicate some basic cumulative energy consumption and cost data back to the user? This would surely result in more sensible use if you could see it had cost you $$$ to cool your apartment for the day so far.

    Going further again It seems that air conditioning units are the obvious ‘smart’ household appliance where this information could be presented on your mobile phone and different price points could be offered for high periods with high peak electrical demands.

    Would love to know if this is happening…