Alan Pears on the baby steps towards overcoming governance failures in the building sector

It has taken something dramatic like burning building cladding to focus governments on the chronic failings of our building industry when it comes to key aspects of public interest. It is going to take billions of dollars to fix this, while the victims will suffer traumatic dislocation.

Taxpayers and victims will end up paying most of the cost. I hope that repairs will incorporate building energy upgrades, so we can gain some long term benefit at minimum cost.

A crucial factor helping to overcome snail-like progress on building performance has been the mobilisation of the social justice and health sectors.

Past debates on building performance have been narrowly focused on energy costs and emissions. Now, there is increasing recognition that unhealthy buildings drive deaths and poor health, unaffordable energy bills, poor quality of life, inequity and higher public and private health spending.

It increases costs of space conditioning equipment and energy supply infrastructure, while undermining resilience in the face of climate change. The multiple benefits of better performing buildings contribute far more to the economy than previously acknowledged.

For example, in 2017, I attended a workshop of health and welfare advocates as part of a process run by the Australian Council of Social Services (ACOSS), the Brotherhood of St Laurence and the Climate council.

The initial driver was concern about increasing energy costs. But, as the discussion evolved, many in the room helped us understand how important better buildings were for the health and wellbeing of their constituents. One example was that multiple sclerosis sufferers have poor thermal regulation, so they are very sensitive to affordable provision of stable temperatures. This process led to a report that, among other conclusions, noted that energy efficiency was critical and “provides multiple benefits reducing costs, reducing emissions, improving health and wellbeing, and reducing the need for concessions.’

Energy Consumers Australia has also played a key role. A consultancy report they commissioned found that there’s a considerable body of international evidence on the value of the multiple impacts of housing energy efficiency, but that we’ve not applied this well in Australia, due in part to the wide variation of climatic conditions across Australia.”

ECA organised a housing summit in 2018 which produced a strong communique supported by many key organisations.

It was an amazing day. Since then it has continued to work in the area, and has provided funding for research and community advocacy (including for renew that has led to the creation of the national Community Coalition for Healthy, Affordable Homes that Renew is leading in partnership with ACOSS.

This broader engagement is beginning to drag building energy issues from the obscure, narrow, industry and ideologically dominated building and energy sectors into the mainstream. At last.

But we are still in the early days of the transformation.

Data, information and change in energy systems

Sophisticated data analytics are transforming our energy system. They allow us to identify waste of energy and other factors worth far more than energy, such as ways to reduce the impact of failures.

Just as Google, market research firms and many others use data of many kinds from multiple sources, emerging businesses can apply data analytics and machine learning to energy, with astounding outcomes. Incumbent energy businesses and most policy makers see many barriers slowing change, but they are often misguided.

For example, the lack of smart meters (except in Victoria) is seen as a barrier to roll-out of data analytics. But we don’t need sophisticated, precision metering to drive data analytics. Innovators can now adapt ‘dumb’ electricity, gas and water meters to talk to ‘the cloud’. Solar PV businesses monitor the operation of their systems and can provide a wealth of data. The costs of sensors and communications are crashing.

Increasingly, we can see when systems are not working at optimum performance, and fix them – before they impact on production, quality of life or health.

We can tell when, where, and who should be accountable for energy waste, loss of productivity and adverse impacts on consumers who rely on products, services and systems.

This is a serious threat to many incumbent businesses, whose business models rely on distorting our perceptions, and limitations on information. Bring it on.

Electric vehicles and stationary energy – emerging possibilities

I use an average of under 4 kWh/day in my all-electric home, with peak day consumption around 9 kWh – I could reduce that peak by further upgrading my home’s thermal performance.

An electric vehicle typically has a battery of 40-100kWh. Yet the “average” daily distance travelled by an Australian car is less than 40 kilometres, requiring about 6 kWh. So emerging EV technology, such as that in the new Nissan Leaf, could provide both mobility and home energy for several days.

I could also drive my car to another electricity source, such as a public charger supplied by wind energy or pumped hydro energy storage, to recharge and run my home and car for even longer. It could even be used to ‘export’ electricity to other buildings or to the grid.

I must admit to being bemused by the delay in recognising EVs as mobile energy storage systems.

And if an EV had a range extender engine (NOT the existing complex and heavy plug-in hybrid technology, but a small, lightweight, multi-fuel motor-generator) it could use petrol or renewable fuels such as ethanol, methanol, hydrogen or biogas to enhance flexibility and provide back-up energy.

Some time ago, I worked out that such a solution could cost-effectively generate up to 700 kWh a year at lower cost than the annual connection charge for staying connected to the grid.

Maybe there is a potential business model for a truck with a large battery that could travel around, topping up home batteries in winter. This would allow people to go off-grid and save $400 annually on connection charges.

Such a service could also download excess electricity stored in a home battery or EV to other consumers. They may pay a lot more than energy retailers would. 

I am not suggesting that solutions like these are here now, or the best options. But the reality is that disruptive business models and behind-meter solutions are emerging from left-field at an accelerating rate.

These options cross traditional boundaries and potentially blind-side people who think in terms of incremental change. Investments in large energy projects that take years to implement (including large energy storage projects) or are protected by slow-moving regulatory systems and policies (often managed by policy makers captured by incumbents or their blinkered vision) are looking increasingly risky.

Change brings risk and opportunity. It can be a wild ride. Energy network operators who, at present, benefit from generous guaranteed profits based on unrealistic asset valuations should be nervous. Their social license to operate is fragile. They are lucky that few policy makers understand this or have the courage to call them out – so far.

Check the exact wording

I was recently discussing with a friend who lives in an apartment how many owners corporations discourage apartment dwellers from drying clothes on their balconies.

This rule increases the risk of condensation problems in poorly ventilated apartments, as people either use conventional clothes dryers or drying racks.

In both cases, the water from the clothes increases humidity in the apartment. Few people realise it, but the water from clothes dried on an indoor rack doesn’t just vanish; it adds to indoor humidity, and can add to moisture and mould problems.

We checked the rules, and they actually state that drying clothes must not be visible on balconies.

So we concluded that if someone could design a vented tent-like unit of an acceptable colour to go on the balcony, the clothes could be dried inside that. So check the wording – there’s scope for creative interpretation to overcome barriers to energy efficiency!

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a senior industry fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant.

This article was first published in ReNew Magazine and republished with permission.

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  1. Well done Alan.
    Your simple explanation of drying clothes inside apartments or any confined living space is hazardous for condensation and mould formation and very dangerous for health. This health issue came to a head in a 2018 federal parliamentary “Inquiry into Biotoxin-related Illnesses”.
    Add to this the need for houses and apartments to more heat stress resilient, which affects human health as well, as Alan has also articulated.

  2. All great comments from Alan Pears. Instead of baby steps we now need adult strides because of the resistance to change for too long by conservative laggardness within Governments. Leave it another 2 decades and our legs will not be long enough to keep pace with the change needed to avert calamity by the end of the century that could last for a 1000 years or more. Hopefully industry champions and key professionals will take the lead soon and governance will follow as it usually does. I don’t know how Alan has had the patience for so long to help drive change from a governance perspective. I sort of gave up about 20 years. But well done Alan. Hopefully a new brigade of young bureaucrats will start seeing the world differently.