In this stifling summer, we’ve just had a welcome breath of fresh air on energy efficiency. Energy ministers from across Australia have approved a set of recommendations to increase minimum standards for energy performance in new buildings.
The recommendations reflected the priorities in the recent Built to Perform report produced by the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council and ClimateWorks Australia.
This is a real breakthrough for the future of our built environment. The recommendations have the potential to save us billions, drastically cut our greenhouse gas emissions, and keep our homes and workplaces safe and comfortable at a time of rising temperatures. They do this by increasing the minimum standards for energy performance of new buildings required by the National Construction Code, the set of standards which all new Australian buildings and major renovations must meet.
Better energy performance will give us so much. The average household will save around $900 per year – a decent sum for most of us at a time of rising living costs, but worth the most to lower income households. Even renters, normally unable to do much about the design of their homes, will be better off. That’s because they will not be shelling out money on energy bills that could be avoided with better buildings and energy saving features, such as insulation and overhanging eaves.
With more than half the buildings due to be standing in 2050 yet to be built, there is huge scope to create a healthier, more affordable future for all Australians. Businesses will also save on the cost of powering their enterprises. Across the economy, the savings are around $29 billion by 2050 – not exactly small change.
At the same time, our ageing energy infrastructure is struggling to cope with the twin demands of a growing population and increased peak demand. Energy efficient buildings would help take the strain off and allow it to cope with more demand overall and bigger surges at times of extreme weather events such as heatwaves.
And if we are to address the root causes of the rise in extreme weather events and average temperatures, it’s no secret that we’re going to have to address our rising emissions. Building more energy efficient buildings provides the cheapest, quickest and least painful way to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and meet our Paris Climate Agreement targets.
There are so many reasons to support stronger energy standards in our buildings that it might come as a surprise to realise some have actually been arguing against them.
Some in the building industry have argued that improving energy efficiency standards will blow out housing costs. This argument can be persuasive when potentially weaker market conditions have the industry worried. But it’s just not grounded in reality.
When we went from a minimum standard of four stars to five under the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme there was no cost blow out. A few years later, we went from five stars to six under the same scheme. The result? Better buildings, and an industry that’s stronger than ever.
ASBEC and ClimateWorks’ Built to Perform has demonstrated how the energy efficiency provisions in the National Construction Code can be improved cost effectively. Parallel modelling has also been undertaken on behalf of the COAG Energy Council, and has also found that there would be an overall economic cost benefit to improving energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code. In other words, experts inside and outside government agree that it will cost us big not to improve energy efficiency, rather than the other way around.
It’s clear that Australians want this change. Many Australians have voted with their homes already, installing solar panels and solar hot water systems in their droves. When voters were asked if they support stronger minimum standards for new homes, a whopping 88 per cent of them said a resounding “yes”.
Renters, squeezed by record high rents, are hardly going to argue against saving themselves around $900 per year in energy bills. Keeping living expenses down is so important at the moment when the cost of living is increasing that last year more than 30 consumer and community groups from Choice to Anglicare came out calling for higher home energy performance standards.
We already know that our building industry can deliver stronger energy performance in new buildings. A significant portion of builders are already building above and beyond the existing energy efficiency requirements in the National Construction Code. More than 20 per cent of new houses and almost 45 per cent of apartments across Australia were already being designed to a standard of 6.5 NatHERS stars or more in 2018. In QLD, ACT, NT and Tasmania, a significant proportion of the new homes built in 2018 were above 7 stars.
Much of our building industry is already doing itself proud when it comes to delivering the excellent energy performance that Australians so clearly want. And now we’ve got the energy ministers of all our states and territories, along with the federal government, agreeing that we need to strengthen the requirements in the National Construction Code to make it happen for all our new buildings. This is a really positive moment. We’re all looking towards an Australia where energy bills are lower for both households and businesses; we’re all more comfortable in our homes, schools, hospitals and workplaces; and emissions are kept in check.
We can see this future, right ahead of us. Now all we need to do is build it.
Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.