News from the front desk, Issue 483: Last week, the Morrison government unleashed its technology roadmap on Australia, starring natural gas in a leading role.
It didn’t take long for people to start protesting the pro-gas sentiment pushed by the government and its friends in the gas industry.
Atlassian chief executive and renewables advocate Mike Cannon-Brookes was among those to protest the assertion that we need gas in the low carbon transition, with AEMO calculations showing that the grid will be able to handle 75 per cent renewables by 2025.
This deserves repeating.@AEMO_Media‘s calculations are that the grid will be able to handle 75% renewables by 2025. @AEMO_Media‘s Integrated Systems Plan shows the cheapest path to decarbonising the grid requires _less_ gas, not more.#electronsnotmolecules https://t.co/7geZlLJoso
— Mike Cannon-Brookes ????? (@mcannonbrookes) May 26, 2020
In the subsequent week, The Fifth Estate has been privy to just how “un-gas” the conversation is outside the Canberra bubble.
First of all, enthusiasm for all-electric homes is almost boiling over. Tim Forcey, an energy advisor based in Melbourne, is the administrator of the popular Facebook group “My Efficient Electric Home” that now has 13,900 uber-engaged members.
Since the pandemic took hold, membership growth has tripled – with the group growing by around 300 new members each week compared to 100 before the lockdown. And it’s not just because Bunnings has been one of the only stores to stay open, which has spawned a rush on home improvements of all sorts.
“A lot of people aren’t comfortable [in their homes] and are worried about the cost of electricity while they are at home more, and also want to make the most of their solar,” Forcey tells The Fifth Estate.
“And a lot are actually starting to hear the messaging.”
Forcey says in most detached homes it’s “very easy to reduce the amount of gas by a huge amount” by putting a heat pump and improving energy efficiency, but cutting the final cord to the gas metre is tough.
Apartments are also a pain point due to instantaneous gas hot water heaters. He suspects these heaters, which are commonly found in apartments because they don’t take up much space, will keep gas companies in business a good while longer because there’s no particularly good alternative at this stage.
While it’s great news that people are becoming electric home enthusiasts, the reality is that governments will need to pull some levers for home electrification to happen at scale.
The ACT government is already on the ball, with some Canberrans eligible for a rebate of up to $5000 to get out of gas and replace their gas heater with a more efficient electric model.
Victoria is the other state heavily reliant on gas that will need to get its skates on if it wants to electrify homes in line with the next decade’s emission reductions targets. Forcey has crunched the numbers and found that Victoria will need to turn the gas line off to around 350 homes a day to get there by 2030.
At the very least, the state needs to sort out the regulatory environment for hot water heaters. According to New Energy Ventures managing director James Allston the building code in Victoria appears to have been “hijacked by the gas industry” by creating a “labyrinth of legal frameworks” that make gas solutions much more favourable than next generation electric ones.
Bigger buildings are harder to get off gas but it’s not impossible
Some building types are harder to electrify than others, with big heating and cooling needs typically the sticking point.
If you ask Aurecon’s global sustainable design expertise leader, Jeff Robinson, it’s all in the mindset. He’s been involved in the all-electric design of complex public buildings with major heating needs, including the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and Monash University’s Woodside Building for Technology and Design.
When a company or organisation has made a commitment to reduce emissions in any way, he says, there’s no reason not to replace a gas boiler with an all-electric solution when it reaches end-of-life.
But the starting point, before you consider swapping out a gas boiler, should be good-old-fashioned energy efficiency and passive design so that buildings don’t require as much heating in the first place.
“The starting point to use a lot less gas is to get the fabric right … if you can get the fabric better, then the kit doesn’t need to be as large.”
Although Robinson says the built environment got a decent mention in the federal government’s technology roadmap last week, it failed to “stress strongly enough the potential for energy efficiency and good design”.
“If we want to start delivering zero carbon buildings for a zero carbon future we need to start building like the Europeans.
“It’s not like we’re waiting for some new tech to be invented … we can beg, borrow and steal.”
He says the all-electric building that he’s been involved in were delivered without much of a cost premium.
“There’s not that much of a cost premium, it’s really a risk premium because people don’t know how to do it and have got their training wheels on.
“It’s possible, we just haven’t put our minds to it.”
Robinson suspects the watershed moment will come when people start cottoning on to the comfort factor.
“People are not used to good comfort.”
Industrial is challenging but doable
Where things get really tricky for electrification is the industrial sector, where extreme temperatures are needed for processing goods. Metallurgical processing requires heat at temperatures upwards of 1500°C, for example.
Fortunately, some of the best minds in the business are on the job, including Beyond Zero Emissions and ARENA.
The good news is that there are renewable options for all current industrial uses of heat, with renewable electricity, bioenergy, geothermal, renewable hydrogen and solar thermal all expected to play a role.
The Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity (A2EP) is working on a pilot project with the ARENA to trial heat pumps in industrial facilities where only low temperature processing heat is needed, such as in food and beverage manufacture.
Beyond Zero Emission has crunched the numbers to work out how much money Victoria could save by making the switch to all-electric manufacturing, with the think tank finding that efficiency could double by switching to electric-powered manufacturing.
Net zero it is
If you look beyond the federal government’s smokescreen, most players are singing from the same song sheet on net zero emissions and the pathway to get there, more or less.
Where companies and organisations have committed to achieving net zero, the plan is generally to electrify as much as possible and run it off renewable energy. Gas, in many respects, represents one of the last hurdles.
Net zero is where the world is headed. The NSW government is currently spruiking its net zero strategy it released earlier this year, which flags buildings as a property, including getting electric vehicle infrastructure into buildings. What’s more, the Green Building Council of Australia’s latest update of its Green Star rating tools is all about net zero.
Once the new “As Built” tool is introduced in September (or thereabouts), a 6 star Green Star building will have to have a low energy demand and use 100 per cent renewable electricity. And by 2023, a 5 star Green Star rated building will also have to source its electricity from 100 per cent renewables.
According to Jorge Chapa, head of market transformation at the Green Building Council of Australia, the update is designed to it incentivise net zero outcomes as much as possible.
He told The Fifth Estate on Wednesday that the tool will look at both the efficiency of the building as well as how it sources its energy, with some small allowances given to back up diesel generators and the like.
The updates underway will apply to new builds only, but Chapa says that there are similar plans to align the Green Star Performance tool with net zero ambitions as well.
Net zero carbon is also on the agenda for the major property companies. GPT Group, which released its sustainability report recently, is working towards carbon neutrality by 2030.
Burning gas remains on its short list of leftover emissions that need to be offset as part of its carbon neutrality ambitions. Plans to electrify all assets going forward, according to the company’s energy plan, will see these gas-derived emissions disappear completely.
Many local governments have also made commitment to net zero and/or signed up to 100 per cent renewable electricity, so are now focusing on cutting emissions in harder-to-reach areas such as gas use.
Victorian councils in particular are falling over themselves to swap gas boilers for heat pumps into their aquatic centres, with heating aquatic centres accounting for up to 80 per cent of a council’s total gas bill.