Delaying the increase of decades-old residential energy efficiency standards will lock in hundreds of millions of dollars of unnecessary costs and carbon emissions. But the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC) has a plan to boost building efficiency, mandate renewables and save the economy billions.
Today, we unveil another signpost on the road to a more prosperous, zero emission Australia. The Bottom Line: household impacts of delaying improved energy requirements in the Building Code report, produced by ASBEC and Climateworks Australia, shows that if we improve the energy standards for houses and apartments in our National Construction Code we can lower emissions and save up to $150 a year in energy bills for households, with bill savings more than offsetting additional capital costs.
Australia’s National Construction Code governs the minimum standards for all new residential buildings and major renovations. Although the Code is regularly revised, its energy provisions haven’t been updated since 2010.
Right now, the Australian Building Codes Board is proposing an ambitious upgrade to the energy performance standards for commercial buildings, to come into effect in mid-2019. This includes improvements to the requirements for housing, but there is no proposal to strengthen the required level of energy efficiency for homes. The next scheduled update to the Code is in 2022, so we’re likely to be stuck building to decade-old standards until then – locking in years of higher energy bills and producing unnecessary carbon emissions.
Energy efficiency and distributed generation technology has improved massively in recent years, and is already being used in new and existing builds across the country. Almost a quarter of Australian households now boast some form of rooftop solar, with several companies now selling solar PV roof tiles. Other technologies like insulation and air circulation have also seen innovative changes. Updating the Code would bring it into line with current technology, with the added benefit that mandated use of technologies like these would increase their uptake and decrease their price across the board.
We’re getting used to higher temperatures in Australia. It’s possible we’ll see regular 50 degree days in Sydney and Melbourne in the coming decades. This leads to a very real risk to human life. Airconditioning assumes a reliable electricity generation and distribution network, but you only have to Google “summer blackout” to know our ageing infrastructure is struggling to cope with the increasing demand for airconditioning when temperatures soar. Reducing the demand for energy in our homes means less stress on the electricity grid we all share – and in a future of increasing extreme temperatures, that could very well be a life saver.
Reducing the strain on our electricity infrastructure also means less to spend on maintaining and replacing it – saving us all money. The Bottom Line demonstrates that if just one household cuts their peak demand by one kilowatt – the power used to run a small oil heater – this saves almost $1000 in outlay on our electricity system’s infrastructure, reducing electricity prices for everyone. In total, the changes suggested in the report could save an estimated $1.2 billion across Australia by 2050 in the form of avoided or deferred electricity network investments.
Population growth is occurring in Australia: we’re a favoured destination for skilled migrants and foreign students, and we have our own natural population growth too. This means our cities are becoming more densely populated and our suburbs expanding. We’re building homes, commercial buildings, schools and universities at a rate of knots. That means that a lot of our future buildings have yet to be built.
A staggering 58 per cent of the buildings that will be standing in 2050 will be built after 2019. This means that changes to the Code right now can make a big difference in meeting Australia’s Paris Agreement obligations. It’s much easier to make the buildings we were going to build anyway more energy efficient than to retrofit old stock.
The report calculates a per-household annual bill saving of up to $150 for each of the energy efficiency measures we found to offer the highest cost-benefit to households, with bill savings more than outweighing additional capital costs. This flies in the face of arguments that improving energy efficiency standards will reduce housing affordability. In fact, the poorest Australians will benefit even more from stronger energy provisions in the National Construction Code.
Low-income households spend a much higher percentage of their income on energy costs to light, heat and cool their homes. That means that adopting these changes will benefit these households the most, helping us towards not only a cleaner and richer society, but a fairer one too.
As a signatory to the Paris Climate Change Agreement, Australia urgently needs to cut our emissions rapidly in order to meet our international obligations. Closing the most polluting power stations is one way to do this. So too is adopting stronger energy standards for housing in the National Construction Code, which could save 10.8 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050. That’s the same amount of carbon as emitted each year by one of Australia’s most polluting power stations, the Loy Yang B station in Victoria, powered by the most polluting brown coal.
They say a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. The journey to a lower emission, affordable energy Australia is nowhere near that long, and industry is already taking some of the steps.
States, territories and the Commonwealth government now need to:
- Commit to harmonised strengthening of Code residential energy requirements as soon as possible. Individual jurisdictions should show leadership by piloting stronger standards (an increase of at least the equivalent of 1 star NatHERS)
- Introduce market transformation initiatives to reduce the cost of energy-saving technologies and improve industry capability in smart building design.
- Introduce renewable energy requirements in the Code (in addition to minimum efficiency requirements).
- Improve Code compliance, including:
- Upgrading NatHERS
- Reviewing residential compliance pathways
- Improving monitoring and enforcement
If these recommendations can be adopted, we’ll be guiding ourselves down the road to a more comfortable, prosperous future.
Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director of ASBEC.