While residential building clients everywhere continue to bemoan that building trades are dragging their feet on sustainability, there’s a boom in the environmental credentials of sparkies, thanks to the one thing they can’t argue with: consumer demand.
Demand for renewable energy and energy management is driving a surge of business for electrical trades people, according to the national association for electrical contractors.
“The noise in the market is fantastic at the moment,” National Electrical and Communications Association EcoSmart manager Michael D’Costa says.
Consumers are the push factor. Householders that have had solar for the past 10-15 years are now getting in touch with the association, wanting to know how they can get battery storage.
February is a big month for enquiries, as the bills from Christmas have been rolling in and people are looking to save on ever-rising energy costs, he says.
“People panic in February.”
D’Costa says that whether or not grant programs are available is not affecting demand, however the programs get people talking about renewable energy storage.
Where businesses aren’t growing, he says, it could be because they have not yet come onboard with energy management and energy efficiency.
“If all they are offering is LED lighting only in their energy efficiency statements, they are 10 years behind.”
Over the next decade, the trade is going to require skilled people across numerous new technological innovations.
Digital-addressable lighting, or DALI systems, for example, which are currently finding a niche in high-end commercial and high-end luxury residential buildings, are likely to become standard across emergency lighting in all building types – including regular detached dwellings.
Another area where tradespeople in the sector may need to grow their skills is in “soft skills” such as selling, and engaging well with clients.
“That is something NECA discusses regularly,” D’Costa says.
Consumers driving demand
According to the D’Costa the pattern of take up of new energy technology is contrast to regular patterns, where the commercial sector is usually in the vanguard, the industrial users start to engage, and domestic users bring up the rear.
“The last few years it has been the other way around.”
In fact the industrial sector has actually been “pretty quiet” for the past few years in terms of new technology uptake. Partly this is because much of the work to reduce energy use and improve the quality of energy supply has already been done over the past 15 years. This includes initiatives such as power factor correction, voltage optimisation, surge protection and energy harmonisation technologies.
In the commercial sector, installing solar is now a “no brainer”, but there is still a significant opportunity to increase uptake.
It makes sense for people to generate electricity where they spend the bulk of their day, such as in commercial buildings, D’Costa says. That is a clear pathway to reducing overall demand on the grid.
“At the moment I am looking out over all these roofs that could have solar on them,” he says.
Among other emerging trends in the commercial sector is the uptake of electric vehicles, and the association is currently trialing some EVs for its own use.
Another hot ticket item is power factor correction, which assists in energy efficiency. Over the past 12-18 months, small commercial users have been following in the footsteps of large commercial and industrial users in terms of adopting the technology, D’Costa says.
November is wake up time
Typically, November is the big month for commercial energy enquiries. That’s when summer peak demand charges kicks in and energy cost becomes a matter for concern.
The users affected are those on KVA demand charges and in the past 12 months or so more states have changed the pricing rules so energy retailers can pass on these added charges by the electrical distribution companies.
This is another area that is driving uptake in business opportunities for the sector and in turn is creating demand for upskilling to understand what technology is available, how it works and how to install and troubleshoot it.
D’Costa says the association is a touchstone for the industry and end users, and for training at its NECA Education and Careers centre in Carlton; also regional roadshows, which enable local tradespeople to “meet and greet” suppliers of new technologies, and gain an understanding of new processes, such as wiring and installation rules, and how to write an energy certificate.
Another source of demand is from energy networks, which are looking for highly skilled installers for products such as solar and battery storage.
D’Costa says apprentices are also an area of focus and that many firms are struggling to find enough young people to bring into the trade. But this may be more to do with the big work volumes in buildings at present rather than a lack of interested potential apprentices.
Currently in Victoria, there is no general requirement for continuous professional development for registered electrical contractors. However, contractors need CPDs to be registered with the Clean Energy Council.
One of the bugbears for many in the building industry, including some of the key stakeholder organisations, is the fact the National Construction Code makes continual reference to applicable standards, but actually getting access to the standards involved costs money.
There has been a call from organisations including the Building Products Innovation Council for standards referenced in the code to be made available free of charge, as a means of improving compliance and conformance.
D’Costa says his organisation addresses this by making all relevant standards available free-of-charge to members through its Technical Knowledge Base [TKB].
Members can log in and get answers to questions like how a standard marries up with the NCC, or any variations to standards or codes and their implications.
There is also a phone contact for assistance with interpreting or applying standards and codes.
Overall, D’Costa says it is an exciting time to be in the electrical trades.
After all, as momentum around smart buildings and smart cities grows, it is the sparkies that will play a key role in bringing them to life and keeping them running.
There is, however, great uncertainty for some businesses in the sector. This could be because they have not brought themselves up to speed on new developments, or because with installing new technology comes risk.
The questions for many working at the leading edge is “who will support them” in terms of innovations.
“We are at the tip of the iceberg with new technology and new types of buildings,” D’Costa says.