The flipside of crisis is opportunity. The past six months have seen two extraordinary stressor events play out across Australia with devastating impacts – the eastern Australian drought and bushfires, closely followed by Covid-19.
The good news is that as we move into recovery mode, we have the ability and opportunity to enact a series of practical steps in our communities and country to build economic and social resilience, reduce costs to the economy and help rebuild our personal, household and national coffers.
This is particularly important with the likelihood of more disruptor events in future, which will undoubtedly occur in a heating climate. Australia’s response to Covid has been swift, decisive and admirable. Can we take this mindset and transform our households, communities and country to meet looming climate challenges and other disruptions?
Here are seven overlapping strategies that can be implemented across Australian cities and communities, build resilience, save money and create a healthier and cleaner future for Australia.
Our hope is that Australians demand that these things become the new normal in a post-Covid, climate-challenged future. Our national prosperity and health depend on it.
Innovative households, communities and businesses are already implementing many of these solutions and are reaping the benefits, demonstrating the way forward for all Australians. Business as usual is not an option.
1. Climate adapted, resilient housing and communities.
Our national housing industry – volume builders and major developers – can start building better energy-efficient, all-electric homes that have a fraction of the energy use and running costs of conventional homes, and that generate their own clean, renewable solar energy.
Recently most Australians have found themselves quarantined at home during Covid, in:
- older housing stocks that generally rate between 1 and 3 stars, and are stiflingly hot in summer and freezing cold in winter; or
- newer houses in modern estates that are unnecessarily energy intensive with annual running costs of thousands of dollars. For people who are suddenly without income to pay high energy bills, this is a real challenge.
The good news is that as part of a review of our National Construction Code, Australian State and Federal governments are currently contemplating lifting the minimum energy performance required of all new Australian homes to a minimum of 7 Stars, whilst at the same time restricting energy use from major appliances such as hot water, lighting and pool pumps. This is a huge and positive step forward that could become law as early as 1 Jan 2022.
If we adopt this sensible change, while concurrently installing solar on houses, replace expensive and polluting gas appliances with efficient all-electric technologies such as heat pumps for heating and hot-water systems and induction cooktops for cooking, Australian homes can reduce annual energy bills from between $2000 to $3000 a year to $500 and less – reductions of 75 per cent to 85 per cent.
Extrapolated across new houses, this represents a saving of billions of dollars a year to Australian households. Similar benefits can be achieved in our offices and businesses.
Energy-efficient houses also stay naturally warm in winter and cool during increasingly hot summers, which will be necessary to protect health and life as we move into a future of more intense, frequent and dangerous heatwaves.
2. Electrify everything – Houses, commercial buildings, transport – and decouple our economy from the enormous economic drag of expensive fossil fuels.
This is a positive route towards rebuilding national economic health and liquidity, while achieving deep cuts to our national carbon emissions.
In addition to the $2000 to $3000 a year for stationary energy costs, Australian homes also spend an additional $3500 – $4000 for each car they use regularly.
We are witnessing the rapid proliferation of efficient, increasingly affordable long-range electric vehicles across the world right now. While Australian take-up has been slow, the costs to retrofit houses, businesses and our transport infrastructure with electric vehicle charging infrastructure is not expensive and will have rapid paybacks.
Economic analysis of efficient all-electric homes paired with electric cars show each can achieve annual energy savings of over $5000 a year compared to conventional homes in 2020, with very good returns on investment. This takes into account the relatively high upfront cost of electric vehicles in Australia at present.
Within five years every business should have rapid chargers to allow employees to recharge electric vehicles and bikes. If enacted Australia wide, these changes could significantly reduce Australia’s annual oil bill, which currently sits at almost $30 billion.
Our abundant renewable energy resources of solar and wind could power demand many times over – the level of solar radiation falling on Australia is about 10,000 times our annual energy consumption.
Energy security. Green electrification brings key additional benefits from improved energy security. Electric transportation means much less risk from our historically low reserves of petroleum. Secondly, electrification means reducing the risk associated with depletion of Victoria’s Bass Strait gas fields. Natural depletion of these fields means we can expect to see winter shortfalls of gas from these fields by 2025.
2. Sustainable agriculture, urban farming and cities as food-producing powerhouses
Australia is currently food-abundant, however climate change and increasing severity and frequency of droughts has been driving up food costs in recent years and putting our primary producers under increasing pressure.
Climate change is likely to further challenge our food security in coming decades. Australia needs to take concrete steps and policies to protect and support our farmers, who have the potential to adapt practices to move from being a contributor to climate change to a solution to climate change by drawing carbon into soils, and creating income in the process. New innovative techniques are being proven up now that allow farmers to sustainably produce food while sinking carbon into soils. Protecting natural carbon sinks like forests, and restoring fragmented biodiversity on our agricultural lands can all coexist with our ability to feed and house ourselves.
We also need to improve our food security, and new breakthroughs in urban agriculture and urban farming systems means that cities can become food producing powerhouses and generate a lot of food within city limits to augment food supply.
Cities have all the ingredients for effective food production – large volumes of compostable food and green waste, both that can be diverted into food production, as well as large amounts of underutilised space in our sprawling suburbs. Current Covid-19 restrictions has seen a surge in interest in home food growing and home poultry.
The benefits of urban farming are many – reduced food costs, social connection, exercise, mental and physical health, better nutrition, avoiding organic waste to landfill, reducing food miles to food meters, closed loop circular economy cities. Similar to electric vehicles, the past five years has seen a proliferation of “urban ag-tech”, or systems for producing food in cities, ranging from the high-tech computer-controlled intensive greenhouses operated with artificial lights and robotics, to lower-tech, affordable and accessible, modular urban farms.
One home-grown, Australian designed and manufactured, water-efficient, modular urban farming system has been deployed by Melbourne company Biofilta – and their system allows for the rapid assembly of instant modular farms on any city surface – rooftops, carparks, back yards, front yards, schools, community spaces.
This system is water-efficient, low-maintenance and has been successfully deployed for home farmers, community gardens, overseas aid projects, schools and indigenous communities in Australia. Trial farms using the Biofilta Foodcube farming system have produced well over 300 kilograms of fresh produce in 12 months from a 2 car-space farm in Port Melbourne.
4. Connected homes, workplaces and sustainable decentralisation.
Australians have had a taste of working at home and the flexibility, time savings, reduced car travel and other benefits mean that this is a trend that is likely to stick.
Quality high-speed broadband connectivity to homes is critical for people to be productive and work remotely while connected to work and social networks, and to allow for sustainable decentralisation of workplaces and economic opportunities and to regional centres and communities. With Melbourne forecast to potentially expand to 8 million people by 2050, the imperatives and opportunities for decentralization to regional towns and communities are greater than ever, and the benefits of sharing some of the economic activity around the regions are huge.
5. Walkable and cyclable estates, neighbourhoods and cities, combined with socially positive urban design.
Let’s face it – a lot of current Australian urban form leaves a lot to be desired – car-centric suburbs are “obesogenic” and reinforce sedentary behaviour, poor health outcomes and car use.
Tens of thousands of kilometres of high paling fences divide up suburbia and cut off social contact between households, designing in loneliness and social isolation. The remedy is to build active connected landscapes and communities and harness the principles of socially positive urban design.
One enabling and transformative technology that our transport planners have underestimated is electric assist bicycles, which are powerful, affordable, have impressive range and expand the radius of effective commuting for people travelling to work. Australia needs to match our investment in big ticket multi-billion-dollar road infrastructure projects with meaningful investments in expanding safe and accessible national cycle path networks that create a desirable and viable alternative for people movement in our cities.
The benefits are numerous – increased exercise, reduced health costs, reduced carbon emissions, reduced fuel spend and reduced congestion. What’s not to like? Recent announcements by Infrastructure Australia of support for a network of cycling superhighways sound promising and worthy of priority.
Socially positive urban design in houses and estates allow for residents to build and maintain a strong connection with their community through passive design features of their homes and landscapes, while balancing the need for privacy.
Examples of socially positive design include open streets and neighbourhoods with no front fencing, traffic-calming measures, walking and cycling path networks, smaller pocket parks and larger parks, homes that have good passive surveillance over neighbourhoods so that people feel secure that they are within eyesight of homes, raised front porches facing on to streets where people can sit and watch the world go by. Parks with facilities like fitness stations, or community gardens are great for incidental contact and building community.
Socially positive urban design promotes incidental contact with your neighbours and community. Communities that have invested in socially positive design, have high levels of incidental social contact between residents, and the benefits of this design has become very clear during the restrictions associated with Covid-19, where residents are able to maintain healthy levels of social contact, while maintaining effective and safe physical distancing.
6. Green infrastructure and urban biodiversity.
While the major focus and spending has been focused on big ticket multi-billion-dollar infrastructure projects, significant attention must also be paid to transforming our cities with much lower-cost green infrastructure – green rooftops, lanes, walls, urban farms, stormwater harvesting to droughtproof our cities. The list goes on – local renewable energy production, battery storage, smart grids, energy efficiency drives, cycling infrastructure, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, urban biodiversity projects.
These sustainable, soft-engineering infrastructure and public-space projects can be nimbly and opportunistically retrofitted into and over our urban form, for a fraction of the cost of the big-ticket infrastructure projects and with huge benefits. Adopting these approaches can help us to create water-secure, sponge cities, that can support biodiversity, cool the city during heatwaves, reduce energy use, energy bills and carbon emissions and create healthy, resilient cities and neighbourhoods.
7. Create productive industries around cheap renewable electricity.
It’s now acknowledged that Australia’s wholesale price of electricity is declining because of new renewable energy sources. However, it’s perhaps much less well-understood just how low the price of energy can be at certain times – usually when it’s both windy and sunny at the same time. Increasingly there are times that the market wholesale price of electricity drops to near zero or even negative.
This situation presents an enormous business opportunity to industries flexible enough to take full advantage of the timing of these low energy prices. There may be many smart ways to use this cheap bounty of renewable energy. It requires productive use of energy that is flexible in its timing, i.e. it’s capable of dynamically halting operation when prices are high. Three possible examples are:
- Hydrogen by electrolysis. Water plus electricity can easily give us hydrogen gas. Hydrogen is being touted as a possible boon for being able to create low-carbon fuels and feedstocks that can then be exported, or used locally for low-carbon industrial activity. A great example is creating and exporting bulk ammonia to places like Japan who can use it for energy and industrial production. Another is creating low-emission steel without needing coal. A third use for hydrogen is for seasonal energy storage in our own power grid. It’s a way to bank our renewable energy for periods of high demand, when it can be turned back into electricity.
- Pumped energy storage. There’s been lots of talk about Snowy Hydro 2.0. However, this isn’t the only game in town. Australia has an abundance of places than suit the creation of pumped-hydro energy systems (PHES) as a way of storing renewable energy for times of higher energy prices. An example is the abandoned Kidston gold mine in Queensland where a large PHES project has just achieved a major pre-construction milestone.
- Fresh water for on a dry continent. While our rivers are under increasingly under stress with low environmental flows, cheap green energy could ease the pressure by being used for creation of fresh water by desalination where there is a source of salt water. This might be in coastal areas using sea water, or where there are (otherwise useless) briny aquifers. Fresh water for smart high-value agriculture or potable uses can be easily created when power prices are low or negative.
- Grid stabilisation. The other upside from these flexible industries that take advantage of periodically and locally low power price is that it will tend to have an important stabilising effect on the grid. Firstly, they stabilise wholesale power price which will help keep our generators economically viable. They also help reduce the risk of blackouts at peak times by ensuring that there’s enough energy consumption able to quickly go offline when demand is high.
We live in a super-connected world in which we have reaped the benefits of globalised trade. When a stressor events like Covid disrupt human movement and connectivity, it underlines the value of super-local food and energy production and resilient, self-reliant communities.
We have the design nous, skills and technologies to maintain our connectivity to the broader world, build sustainable export revenue streams while improving resiliency and self-reliant communities. The systems and methods are proven, and the approaches discussed have strong community support. Business as usual is no longer an option in a post-Covid world facing down much larger looming climate change risks and disruptors. We are an inventive bunch. We have recently shown we have great risk-management skills. Let’s seize the moment.
Brendan Condon is the founder and director of The Cape sustainable housing project in Victoria’s Bass Coast, a national award winning, energy efficient, carbon neutral housing project and Biofilta, a Melbourne based urban farming company.
Damien Moyse is the policy and research manager at Renew – a national not-for profit dedicated to inspiring, enabling and advocating for people to live sustainably in their homes and communities. Established in 1980, Renew provides expert, independent advice on sustainable solutions for homes and businesses to households, government and industry.
Richard Keech is an engineer, consultant and author with particular interest in renewable energy and energy efficiency. He was a lead author of the Zero Carbon Australia Buildings Plan and a regular contributor to Renew’s publications on topics related to energy efficiency.