President of the Australian Refrigeration Association Tim Edwards believes the Australian property sector can reduce energy use by between 60 and 70 per cent and achieve savings in the order of $10 billion a year.

Mr Edwards is one of the presenters at this week’s National Energy Efficiency Conference in Sydney, and is also the key presenter for ARA’s upcoming Heating, Ventilation, Airconditioning and Refrigeration Energy Efficiency Seminar series in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney.

The dramatic reduction in the sector’s footprint can be achieved through transition to natural refrigerants and improving overall building efficiency, including airconditioning plant upgrades and measures like high performance facades and reflective paints to reduce thermal heat load.

The hitch is there is $100 billion worth of HVAC equipment in Australia, and Mr Edwards said the majority of it is still using refrigerants that have high global warming potential, such as HCFCs. Australia is phasing out the use of the high GWP products under Montreal Protocol commitments, and worldwide the shift to low GWP refrigerants is “inevitable”.

Tim Edwards

The savings for the property sector can come not only through reduced energy use, but also because natural refrigerants such as ammonia, CO2, water, air and hydrocarbons are cheaper. The high GWP refrigerants are currently imported, whereas the naturals are manufactured in Australia using the by-products of other industrial processes. Being derived from by-products keeps the price low.

Mr Edwards, who is also the former secretary of the Australian Lifecycle Assessment Society, said that building owners, managers and HVAC consultants and contractors need to consider lifecycle costs for equipment, particularly when making decisions about replacing high GWP refrigerant-using plant with low GWP refrigerant-using plant.

Currently, he said, most specifiers looked only at capital cost, not lifecycle costings. They were also not always considering the fact the technology keeps changing, and with the industry most likely completing the phase out of HCFCs by 2030, “you don’t want to be investing in those machines.”

“From a procurement point of view, the transition is now,” Mr Edwards said.

The other thing that needed to happen was considering HVACR within the context of energy efficiency solutions that are “not just derived from vapour compression”.

“I am calling on the industry to develop integrated solutions,” he said.

“Contractors in HVAC tend to exist in silos, and they tend not to look at non-vapour solutions [for energy efficiency], but that opportunity exists.

“Specifiers and energy efficiency consultants need to recognise buildings need both.

“Specifiers are in the habit of handing HVACR to contractors, and both the Green Building Council of Australia and NABERS know that HVACR is a big chunk of emissions in the environment [about 60 per cent of property sector emissions] but it kind of falls through the cracks.”

The bottom line is, when a building has the right passive design, building fabric elements including coatings and roof colour, HVACR doesn’t need to use as much energy.

“Twenty to 30 per cent of the 40-50 per cent saving from refrigerant comes from heat load management,” Mr Edwards said.

The other advantage is that reduced energy use by HVACR means reduced peak load demand, which translates into less need to invest in continually building the capacity of the poles and wires to meet high peak demand loads.

There are some hurdles to overcome, he said, including the split incentive in relation to building owners and building tenants.

“People are trying to deal with it, but are not getting that far,” he said.

There is also a conflict between the need for training, regulation and safety procedures for the new refrigerants, with 70,000 separate contractors and about 100,000 technicians requiring new skills, but in the complete absence of any kind of national licensing requirements for HVACR.

“I sit on a lot of federal and state government consultation committees, and what I have been hearing at these consultations is ‘we want to examine this question [of HVACR] but we also want to deregulate this industry’,” Mr Edwards said.

“In the absence of regulation, capitalism is dangerous. To think we can deregulate an industry like this is lunacy – in order to keep pace with the rest of the world, we need regulations.

“It is obvious that Australia’s role in emissions reduction is one of leadership, not direct emissions reduction.

“It is also true though that in the HVACR industry because energy reduction is associated with emissions reduction, it goes directly to our competitive advantage as a country – if we do it quickly and well.”