The retrofitting game is getting easier. The price of technology and energy-efficient plant trending down in response to growing demand, finance models such as Environmental Upgrade Agreements are resolving the split incentive barrier and state and territory governments are inspiring action and competition with each other.

It’s just as well, according to Matthew Lee, regional energy manager solutions and growth for Veolia, which now employs 380 staff in the space and typically carries out about two or three major retrofits a year. Lee says Bright shiny new buildings make great photo opportunities, but with 80 per cent of the nation’s commercial buildings 10 years old or older, retrofits are where the real carbon-cutting action is.

In any of these older buildings, energy savings of between 50 and 70 per cent are achievable, he says. Scale that across the whole sector and there is the opportunity to cut around 100 megatonnes of greenhouse gas emissions. There is also the potential to see $9 billion in cost savings between now and 2030.

“Retrofitting is not really a choice,” Lee says.

Existing stock can yield the greatest reward, he says, and if retrofit works are done well, tenants and building users may not even be aware of work, other than that their building ends up more comfortable and cheaper to run.

Lee says making work in the sector easier are mechanisms such as EUAs, which are suited to the sector because of their longer timeframes, and because of the way the return on investment is shared between stakeholders.

New ways of engaging with clients are also emerging, with performance contracts, for instance, on the rise. These are designed for longer-term relationship through building performance monitoring and maintenance.

Government programs are also starting to help, with NSW showing strong leadership with upgrades of its own assets.

The Better Buildings Partnership managed by the City of Sydney and other programs driven by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage are also having an impact, inspiring Victoria, South Australia and the ACT to revive their own programs to encourage retrofits. The Victorian government recently announced it would re-introduce the Greener Government Buildings program, though a program for action has yet to be announced.

Examples of major retrofits

According to Lee hospitals have been keen on retrofits.

One example the company has been involved in is an upgrade of energy efficiency for Westmead Hospital, which won the 2014 Green Globe for energy efficiency.

The system-wide upgrade of the hospital’s HVAC system, new control system and ongoing monitoring of energy use produced a 28 per cent reduction in consumption, and saved 2462 megawatt hours of coal-generated power, Lee says.

Another project at 76 Castlereagh Street that used an EUA, achieved a 36 per cent energy savings and 36 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, along with higher NABERS rating and higher rental yields. Works included a lighting upgrade, upgraded chilled and hot water systems and new air handling units.

At Muswellbrook, the Workers Club, 335,000 kWh of power is being saved annually, through the installation of 100kW of solar PV, a lighting upgrade, HVAC upgrade and a new building management system.

The best work takes time, Lee says –up to two years from first looking at the building, gathering usage data and brainstorming the best potential measures, through to getting the financing right, implementation and follow-up monitoring and verification of savings.

During the brainstorming phase, “nothing is off the table”, Lee says. Imagination, creativity and thinking outside the square are called for.

Then the ideas need to be quantified and there needs to be certainty they will deliver a return on investment. Finally, they need to be practical to implement in what might be a fully operational building.

“It’s a lengthy process and you need to step through it,” Lee says. “There is a lot of stakeholder management involved.”

The general categories where any building can achieve better performance are lighting, installing renewables, heating and cooling, controls and the building envelope.

He says there are more than 100 possibilities for energy conservation measures that have been successfully implemented and proved.

A lot can be achieved in building operations and controls.

“There have been large advances in building controls,” Lee says.

The smarter control systems now on the market can make systems perform more efficiently. For example, as well as the big returns that can be gained from swapping fluoro lights for LEDs, sensors, zone timers and light dimmers that respond to ambient light levels generate further savings.

Some systems now available can be controlled from a smart phone. They include systems that can measure aspects such as indoor temperatures in specific zones and ensure the HVAC is only delivering what is required.

“A hot topic at the moment is solar PV,” Lee says. “People love it because you can see it immediately and it is very cost-effective, you can get fast payback and it has a good ROI.”

The payoff for a big picture approach

Lee advises to look at the bigger picture in a building or precinct because of the sometimes “50” other cost-effective but simple things that can be done.

Improving the building envelope is one, and while the improvement might only deliver a two per cent reduction in energy use, the cumulative impact of small but multiple interventions can be significant.

Adding insulation and reducing air leakage are two of the quick-fix ideas. Adding a carbon monoxide sensor to control ventilation fans in a carpark is another.

Then there’s the smarts

Putting “smarts” into the building systems is a solid strategy, and it can reduce long-term operational costs too, Lee says.

Chiller systems can be retrofitted to use free cooling without running the compressor, by adding a valve and a control for instance.

“Smart can be easier to install, and commission and operate,” he says.

Smarter also means putting in more programmable and measurable devices, Lee says.

One area where the age of the equipment is crucial to the business case is HVAC. When plant is at the end of its design life, betterment in terms of replacement with more energy efficient equipment is a no-brainer.

However, when it still has a few years left in it, the payback period can be too long to excite people, Lee says, even when the upgrade involves a high-efficiency chiller, variable fan drive and the new energy-efficient refrigerants.

What might increase the appetite for HVAC upgrades is the phase down of hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants under the Montreal Protocol.

“The phase down means there will be more and more pressure,” Lee says.

HFC-using equipment will become more expensive to maintain and to keep those systems operational, he says.

“There’s a lot of people with their head in the sand.”

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