OPINION: UPDATED 21 December  2018: There’s something wrong with the notion that we need harmonised energy standards for housing agreed by COAG. Maybe we don’t.

Poor Tasmania. It made a single murmur of objection at the meeting of the national energy ministers in Canberra on Tuesday this week. The builders in the state were mostly small and traditional and they might struggle to implement better energy performance standards in the local housing market, it said.

And suddenly our national energy minister, Angus Taylor, the armour-clad chariot riding saviour of the coal industry, immediately wigged out and took it off the table.

So we’re to believe that for every other state a higher energy standard, one that might be considered just passable in any other modern country, the issue is suddenly off the table.

We’re to believe a single small state that – let’s face it, was habitually left off the map of Australia until David Walsh brought Mona to the table – has cowed the rest of the nation into ignoring the wishes of a massive number of consumer groups and voters.

We’re talking here the collective clout of the Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council (ASBEC), the Energy Efficiency Council, Australian Council of Social Service, Renew, CHOICENational Shelter and more than 50 other community, environment, industry and local government groups.

Renew (previously the Alternative Technology Association) alone has 11,000 members and a fan base of about 250,000 people it reaches every year online and through its events.

And two more things being dissed here by Minister Taylor: the Victorian election result predicated on climate and energy policy and the Wentworth by-election predicated on the same.

No wait, add the NSW election in March, ditto.

Don Harwin, NSW energy minister and his boss Gladys Berijiklian, the premier, have already raised swords and thrown down gauntlets to the Feds on energy and climate, and media reports actually said the tension in the COAG meeting made Angus Taylor “sweat blood”.

Apparently, he’s quite intelligent and was a Rhodes scholar, so he must be at least sentient of the insanity he is meant to defend and prosecute on behalf of his government’s fossilised ideology.

But no, Taylor quickly shoved aside the idea of COAG agreeing to improve our standards of housing. No one was suggesting this would happen next week, nor even within a year or two but by 2022 because that’s how long the so-called implementation trajectory takes to worm its way into the NCC draft.

We’ve been waiting 12 years now for an improvement in standards.  And now these ministers and our Feds say wait. Again.

What this means is taking the legal minimum standard for housing from 6 star NatHERS – the equivalent of a pathetic 3 stars fail in any other country with any self-esteem – to 7 stars from a maximum of 10 stars.

The cost to do so?

Pretty much zilch. Don’t believe what the troglodytes tell you.

Donna Luckman, chief executive officer of Renew, says her outfit has a string of builders doing 7 and 8 star houses for little to no extra cost. She’s promised readers of The Fifth Estate she will put doubters directly in touch with these people to see for themselves. Here is her number (+61 3) 9639 1500.

It’s not about costs

But let’s face it this battle is not about cost. It’s about ideology.

Taylor is under strict instructions to derail any move to energy efficiency or renewable energy.

He doesn’t believe in regulation except when it comes to pricing for the energy companies and forced sales of power plants. The single objective is to keep the gate on coal wide open and say whatever is needed to do this.

What happened this week was the potential for a period of orderly consultation and implementation for a new draft resi code in 2022. And furthermore the ability to plan a longer term trajectory for more ambitious goals.

But wait. If this is the right answer and we can’t make it happen, maybe it’s time to look and see if the question correct.

Maybe we’ve lost clarity on what we’re trying to achieve here.

For 30 years the mantra has been harmonisation of codes and rules and standards. Sounds wonderful doesn’t it? Has a kind of hypnotic ring to it.

That’s the first sign you need a wakeup call. It’s almost a rule of science that every now and then you need to stop trying to find a solution to some problem or other and review the question.

When was the last time we looked at the question? What exactly does it mean? Who framed it? To whose benefit?

Maybe harmonisation of energy standards in housing doesn’t make sense…

When it comes to national standards for electric appliances the magic is clear.

Harmonisation of electric appliances, kicked off by Alan Pears and his cohorts, achieved brilliant results. Our flat screen televisions now consume a fraction of the energy than they previously did.

But when PM Tony Abbott came to power he brought with him the same brand of selective ideology that’s messing with corporate heads right now in the energy markets.

Abbott introduced some kind of childish tit for tat rule about regulation: nothing could be regulated without a corresponding regulation deleted. Believe it or not that rule is still in place and harmonisation of standards in things like zoned airconditioning equipment have stalled as a result.

As Alan Pears told us on Thursday that movement on that score was “moribund because the Department of Environment couldn’t find a regulation to get rid of to offset it.”

See what we mean by the need to look afresh at the question?

In development builders and developers everywhere need to consider local climate and weather variations, the local government environmental plans, state environmental plans and variable consumer preference. Just to start.

It’s part of the efficiency response mechanisms that underpins profit maximisation. You can’t design a one size fits all housing typography so why should all states and territories agree to harmonised minimum standards for energy efficiency?

Right now that’s stopping progress or could do, every bit as much as Abbott’s rule about tit for tat regulations is holding back better standards on appliances.

Already NatHERS allows for 69 different climate zones. As Alan Pears says a 6 star house in Victoria is not the same as a 6 star house in northern Queensland.

States are quite capable of deciding what’s appropriate for them and implementing the kinds of standard they want. They do so already. Check out BASIX in NSW.

And as ASBEC executive director Suzanne Toumbourou points out the Northern Territory has a minimum 5 star NatHERS standard for houses and 3 star for apartments.

Councils can also go their own way. Groups of them in Victoria are banding together to mandate environmentally sustainable development clauses in their planning schemes under agreement with the state. See this article.

State governments retain the right to override councils that might get a tad out of control, but what do they do when a bunch of pollies beholden to one tiny but powerful lobby group get to sit in the green chairs in Canberra?

Already NSW has challenged its Liberal cousins in Canberra on energy and greenhouse gas emissions and said, “you’re not taking us down with you”.

South Australia is bringing back many of the energy efficiency and renewable energy programs of its Labor forebears “by stealth” as Pears put it (well it’s not quite as powerful as NSW and has already won its election).

And to be frank Tasmania murmured just a slight concern in the COAG meeting. Tassie has cheap energy and the government there probably wants to maintain the income it gets from its hydro-based energy but it probably wants to join the common market of Australia and be seen as an equal participant, especially now it’s become a hot real estate commodity.

At the bottom is that the Building Codes Board of Australia is there as a servant of the states and territories. If the states and territories want a stronger code they will get it.

So the question is why worry about the agreement?

The people who stand to benefit most from it are the few national developers who play on the big scale, maybe.

But are they really doing cookie cutter houses for every region in the country? And if they are, maybe they should stop.

They are perfectly capable of adjusting to local conditions as they do on so many levels already.

Right now we’ve heard the decision to consider the higher standard has been deferred possibly to February and then slated to be put before a building minister’s forum in March.

The possibility is it’s deferred again as the government sinks deeper into the energy mire.

ASBEC’s Suzanne Toumbourou says the states and industry “don’t like a patchwork approach across the country. It’s very inefficient.”

And she says the harmonised COAG approach will help speed up the mid term more ambitious trajectory. That’s good. And we hope she’s right. But if not the result is that everyone keeps waiting forever for a pathetic 6 star standard to be lifted.

And quite frankly we think time’s up for patient negotiations.

Wake up Australia, this is 2019 coming up.

UPDATE: Strange that we learn now after first publishing this that the words spouted by the Tasmanians and Minister Taylor both spouted almost identical lines written for them in a letter from the Housing Industry Association, about these better standards  being anti-competitive or some such rubbish, News to hand is that evidence will soon be provided that Tassie builders are every bit as good and efficient as every other builder. Apologies to you all! Tassie builders rule OK and the HIA is bunch of troglodytes. And the big leak we need now folks is who is paying them to stop the rest of us benefiting from better energy standards?

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  1. CSIRO of Australia can take the credit for the development of the modern PV cell. They can also take credit for the development of the best heliostats (mirrors) for thermal solar plants now being manufactured in SA. Australian companies are amongst the leaders in wave energy technology. The only desalination plant in the world to be powered by waves is in WA and developed by an Australian company. The vanadium flow battery which will become a leading component of renewable systems was developed by UNSW.

    Australia has the highest per capita take up of (Australian developed) roof top PV cells.The only reason most of these are made overseas is because some countries have massive populations. Australian industry which is more and more hi-tech is changing into specialised products.

    Have a look at engineer websites like CSIRO ARENA and the Clean Energy Council to see what we are really doing. You will be amazed.

  2. Hmm, I agree that we’re not asking the right question.

    NatHERs is a terrible tool for analysing the design and potential performance of residences (refer numerous studies) and should be rebuilt to include all energy consumption not just heating and cooling demand. Also the scale shouldn’t be 10 stars as it conflicts with other building sustainability standards (green star and NABERS) and the ratings should be disclosed at point of sale and lease like NABERS. Don’t need to reinvent too much just align it with systems that work in Australia.

    As for “Our flat screen televisions now consume a fraction of the energy than they previously did.” This is not something Australia can take much credit for – they don’t make the tvs nor are they a major consumer. Like PV panel prices Australia just benefits from global pressures and can’t take full credit for lowering the prices of PV or energy efficient appliances.