WA Property Council executive director Joe Lenzo

27 May 2014 — The Western Australian government has abolished the body responsible for a variety of energy efficiency initiatives, including the provision of policy and advice on the six star Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme rollout for new homes in WA, as well as advice on NABERS and Commercial Building Disclosure.

But the industry is divided around the impact, with the commercial sector saying NABERS now has sufficient momentum to continue and the residential sector condemning the move, saying it was shortsighted and would lead to higher energy prices for consumers.

The move to axe the Program Facilitation and Review Branch of the Public Utilities Office was announced last week in an email to stakeholders, without industry or public consultation.

“The decision has been taken because of a change in the priorities of government and a shift in emphasis from program administration and facilitation to the provision of policy and commercial advice to government,” the email from Department of Finance deputy director general Ray Challen said.

“There are a small number of functions that will be absorbed into other branches in the Office but the functions overall will cease on 30 May 2014. Theses functions to be absorbed largely relate to state government obligations associated with national agreements on energy efficiency matters, which will be maintained but with a reduced level of involvement by the Office.”

It follows similar decisions by the conservative Victorian and federal governments to slash energy efficiency program.

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Questions put to the PUO, the Department of Finance and energy minister Mike Nahan’s office on which programs would be affected were not answered.

Property Council says branch had done its job in commercial sector

The executive director of the WA division of the Property Council, Joe Lenzo, told The Fifth Estate that the closure of the branch would have little effect on programs for the commercial sector, including NABERS and CBD, as the branch had “done its job” and there was now “sufficient knowledge” in the private sector.

“We feel it’s not going to make a huge difference,” Mr Lenzo said. “[NABERS has] become a normal thing for private sector owners to do.”

He said the branch had done well increasing knowledge of NABERS and CBD, and it was unfortunate people were now out of a job due to their success.

There was “a little downside” regarding a reduction in communication between state and federal governments on these matters, though this was not crucial.

ABSA says cuts will affect NatHERS

The Association of Building Sustainability Assessors condemned the move, saying energy minister Mike Nahan had made a shortsighted decision.

“The PUO Program Facilitation and Review Branch was responsible for many valuable energy efficiency initiatives that helped to mitigate the impact of rising energy costs on WA householders,” ABSA chair Sid Thoo said.

“These programs included developing policy and technical advice to assist the rollout of recent six star [NatHERS] energy efficiency standards for new homes in WA.

“By abolishing this Branch of the PUO, there is no longer a dedicated WA government agency overseeing this national energy efficiency initiative –we are now at the mercy of bureaucrats in Canberra who don’t understand the implications it has for the WA building and construction industry.”

Mr Thoo told The Fifth Estate the branch had liaised with the federal government on how national programs were rolled out in WA. For example, it had helped to provide feedback on climate zone maps, which buildings were designed in response to, identifying the idiosyncrasies of WA for improved outcomes.

Now there would be no channel to the national administrator of NatHERS to get the best outcomes for WA, Mr Thoo said.

While some of the functions of the Program Facilitation and Review Branch could be picked up by the Department of Commerce’s Building Commission, he said it seemed that energy efficiency was not one of its priorities.

Six-star home standard in jeopardy

Chief executive of ABSA Rodger Hills said it would also put in jeopardy consumer protection around NatHERS ratings for homes, with ABSA having previously engaged with PUO to try to crack down on shonky ratings.

While ABSA and the Building Designers Association of Victoria have been deemed accrediting organisations to accredit thermal performance assessors under NatHERS, apart from in New South Wales there is no legal requirement that dictates assessors have to be accredited.

This has led to a number of unqualified assessors claiming to get to the six star standard by falsifying information.

“We have documented evidence of individuals who have completely erroneous – even falsified – energy ratings on new homes. For the past 18 months ABSA had been working closely with the PUO to resolve the matter; it’s a concerning consumer protection issue, and we now have no point of contact in government.”

Mr Thoo said the lack of enforcement around accreditation had “allowed the emergence of people who don’t like high standards”.

He recounted a story where an accredited assessor said to reach a six-star standard a house would have make significant changes with associated costs, including additional insulation.

A second opinion from a non-accredited assessor said the six-star standard could be reached without these measures, and this assessor was therefore used.

Mr Thoo said many ratings by unaccredited assessors were due to incorrect data being entered into NatHERS software to get the desired results.

He said it was a consumer protection issue, as homebuyers were entitled to a six star house.

Concerns over lobbying

Mr Thoo said there were very well-funded lobby groups within the construction industry that had made quite clear they did not want energy efficiency standards in place.

He said NatHERS was about building appropriately for climate, but major players in the construction industry wanted to pump out high volume standard products without having to adapt to climate.

“These guys want standard blocks no matter if it’s metropolitan Perth, down south or up the coast.”

Mr Hills said ABSA was concerned the government was being swayed by these lobby groups to weaken housing energy efficiency standards.

“Without the important functions of this branch of the PUO, ultimately WA households will pay higher energy costs and have no guarantee that their new homes will be energy efficient, while big energy polluters continue to receive kickbacks and subsidies to keeping doing business as usual.

“The minister apparently wants to create a ‘level playing field’for all stakeholders in the energy industry, but ultimately it is the WA taxpayer that shoulders the burden of bad policy decisions. Energy costs for WA households have skyrocketed by almost 50 per cent since 2008 – what about a level playing field for the end user?

“We are very concerned about the impact that this ill-considered decision will have on Western Australian families.”