Calling on northern Australia to step up on energy standards
Photo: Daniel Christie

Currently, poor energy performance of buildings in Queensland, the Northern Territory and northern Western Australia means big bills, high carbon emissions and poor comfort for those who live, work or study in them. 

Stretching across three states and referred to as northern Australia, this region encompasses several different climatic zones, from wet tropics to dry tropics and desert regions, which all have one thing in common: a punishing climate, resulting in a compelling need to keep buildings ventilated, dry and cool. 

This presents an acute challenge: Air conditioning is often necessary for health in temperature extremes, yet at a time of increasing energy costs, energy guzzling homes cost their occupants in higher bills (particularly burdensome for low income households). 

According to a new report from the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council and ClimateWorks Australia, Built to Perform in Northern Australia, the unique challenges of building in the north also present unique opportunities compared with the rest of the country. By making changes appropriate for the local climate (such as ceiling fans and larger awnings) and taking advantage of specialised design and construction practices that have evolved in response to Northern Australia’s tropical and arid climates, residents in these areas could reduce or even eliminate needless expense.

The built environment gives us some of the fastest, easiest and cheapest ways to cut energy bills and emissions as we head towards the zero carbon economy of the future. Improving the energy performance of new buildings is an especially important opportunity, given that more than half of the buildings in Australia that will be standing in 2050 have yet to be built.

Fortunately, we have a ready-made instrument to help us achieve better energy performance in our buildings in the form of Australia’s National Construction Code. This regulatory code sets out the minimum standards that all new buildings and major renovations must meet, including their energy performance. 

In northern Australia, adapting the building code to require stronger energy performance has the potential to deliver buildings that are not only cheaper to run and more comfortable, but even provide health and safety benefits in a time of rising temperatures.

The report models eight residential and non-residential building types to demonstrate potential energy savings – and associated emissions and cost savings. The analysis shows that by 2030, even conservative improvements in the code’s energy efficiency requirements for northern Australia could cost-effectively deliver between 27 and 31 per cent of the energy savings required towards achieving net zero energy in new residential buildings, 22-38 per cent of the required energy savings for commercial sector buildings, and 38-56 per cent for public sector buildings. Long-term energy bill savings, savings from purchasing smaller air conditioning equipment, and reduced investment in electricity infrastructure outweigh upfront costs associated with these improvements.

The calculations in the report assume no design improvements but are based on typical designs already in use if the building code energy performance requirements were strengthened. Clever design features could provide even greater energy savings than modelled in the report, such as a second floating parasol roof above the main roof to stop the sun directly heating up the building, or designing cool “refuge” spaces on the inside of buildings that are sheltered from the heat.

The population of Australia’s north is less centralised than the southern states and territories. The large distances and smaller populations put more strain on ageing energy infrastructure, making it harder for energy to be transported from power stations. Making local generation of energy a requirement under the building code could provide another valuable way to ease the strain. 

Case studies in the report show that residential buildings with relatively small rooftop PV systems can generate a very high proportion of the power they consume, sometimes even producing a surplus that can be sold back to the grid. 

For the public sector, modelling in the report showed that after implementing energy efficiency improvements, a hospital ward equipped with solar panels could provide 40 per cent of the energy it uses, while a single storey school building with the same equipment could produce around 90 per cent of the energy it requires, reducing the need for new infrastructure investment.

Australia is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement and it is widely-accepted that to meet obligations under this agreement, developed countries must reach net zero emissions by 2050. Australia has committed to an interim target of lowering our emissions to 26-28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030. 

With the recent news that we’re not on track to meet the targets, the need for a simple, affordable way to reduce emissions has never been more urgent. 

However, with our building code compass pointed to true north, northern Australia has the potential to achieve comfortable buildings that are cheap to run and reduce emissions. 

Of course, this cannot become a reality unless state, territory and Commonwealth governments take action. At the 2018 Council of Australian Governments meeting just concluded this week, Australia’s governments deferred consideration to commit to a forward plan for improving the energy performance requirements in the 2022 update of the building code, providing certainty for the industry and driving down prices for energy efficient technologies. 

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In the meantime, state and territory governments can implement programs to upskill local residents, designers and builders to deliver higher performing buildings at lower cost, using regionally specific measures appropriate to their climate. At the same time, ministers could be investigating other factors to include in minimum standards for new buildings, such as the impacts on health in a time of rising temperatures or coping with peaks in energy demand.

Northern Australia’s built environment has the potential to be a zero carbon beacon, showing the way to other tropical and arid regions throughout the world. But it won’t happen unless governments at state and federal level act now to mandate it.

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