Suzanne Toumbourou

It will come as no surprise that the building industry is a huge consumer of energy. Around 20 per cent of all the power Australia generates is used in our buildings. Another 40 per cent is used by the transport sector, of which the building industry is a major user.

With the Australian government currently planning our energy future via a new Energy White Paper, it’s important that the voice of the building sector is heard.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council, with our member organisations incorporating 300,000 professionals from across the building sector, believes the government’s plan has some very good points. For example, a strong Renewable Energy Target is essential if we’re going to reduce emissions and shift away from fossil fuels. But there are some significant things missing as well.

The way power is generated is changing. In the past, our energy generation has assumed a system of large power plants, often situated many miles away from our towns and cities. The power then has to be transported long distances from the place where it is generated to the point where it will be used.

These days, however, more and more Australian buildings are generating their own power, using new technology like solar panels and cogeneration, in the same location where it will be consumed. This “distributed generation” gives us new opportunities to make power more affordable and increase our energy productivity. But the White Paper doesn’t talk enough about the reforms our energy market needs to really let us get the benefit of the possibilities offered by distributed generation.

There are several barriers to an increased uptake of distributed generation, including a system which disadvantages the innovators and first-movers who try to take the technology forward. Connecting distributed generation to the grid is an ongoing problem, with delays, ad hoc processes and unfair ways of apportioning costs for the required changes to energy infrastructure.

Making it easier to connect distributed generation options to the grid could be achieved by improving the connection process and using a new Commissioner for distributed energy to help smooth the way, by tackling the regulatory barriers as an ombudsman for the connection process, troubleshooting any issues and ensuring fairness.

We also need to pay a fair rate for the power generated using distributed generation. To do this, we need to review the way consumers and generators are charged for using the grid, and make sure owners of distributed generation installations are properly rewarded for the benefits they deliver. We also need to improve the information and options that consumers have available, so that those who want to avoid emissions can make the choice to pay to do so. Targeted financial support for innovative applications of distributed generation could also help to create long-term change in the way we power our buildings.

Improved energy productivity can bring benefits to everyone, by bringing down the costs of power generation and therefore easing cost of living pressures on all of us, and increasing the productivity of our businesses.

Measures that will increase our energy productivity include tax incentives for green building retrofits, a national white certificate scheme and public investment in retrofits. Modernising and improving the energy standards required by the Building Code of Australia, along with enhancing the current Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards, would also help.

The White Paper does include an energy productivity target, which is an important step to get maximum value from each unit of power we generate. The next task, we believe, is for the government to work with industry to find the best way to achieve the target.

Two very good projects already exist to help the building sector work together to improve energy productivity. The Mid-Tier Commercial Office Buildings project is a collaboration between government, industry and scientists to improve energy productivity in these buildings. 2XEP, run by the Australian Alliance to Save Energy, aims to double Australia’s energy productivity by 2030. Government support for this existing work would be useful!

Technology alone is not going to meet our energy needs – we also need to know how to install and use it. A skilled workforce is crucial, and to achieve this we need a two-pronged approach, combining improvements to our current efforts and the creation of targeted new initiatives. With skills gaps varying by industry sector, it’s vital that the government works with the industry to spot the gaps and devise the best training and education schemes to address them. ASBEC’s Skills Collaboration Framework sets out actions to help government, industry, professional associations and education providers work together.

Finally, there’s the constant elephant in the room: climate. According to the Australian Treasury, climate change is “the largest threat to the environment and represents one of the most significant challenges to economic sustainability.” It’s also a huge threat to our built environment, with buildings and infrastructure likely to experience huge effects from climate change.

But the Energy White Paper does not address climate change policy in any detail. Adopting strong distributed generation and energy productivity measures would help by reducing emissions.

As with all savings plan, starting early is key, and the earlier we adopt these policies the sooner we’ll reap the rewards, like cheaper energy costs and increased resilience in our built environment.