What happens to energy efficiency when people desert the CBDs because of the COVID-19 pandemic to work from home, and then send energy consumption through the roof with their domestic consumption?

In a stark reminder that we need to keep focused on this area that we rely on to bring down global greenhouse gas emissions, the Energy Efficiency Council on Thursday issued a call out to Australian governments to not forget this crucial sector.

In a program called Protect, Pivot and Rebound, the council outlined ways that the downturn and its recovery can be harnessed for better long-term outcomes in all sectors.

President of the council Professor Tony Arnel told members in an email on Thursday that the first part of the program is to help organisations in the sector stay solvent and retain staff. Next is to use the shutdown productively such as implementing more training and planning energy upgrade projects.

Finally rebound – using stimulus measures to drive energy efficiency.

Even now, with the crisis in full flight, empty or near empty buildings do not necessarily lead to zero energy consumption.

Buildings need to be kept fully functioning and in good condition for the return of occupants when the crisis is over.

Buildings in Australia’s CBDs are not exactly empty either. Many are still needed for essential workers in government departments, in banks and telcos, just for a start.

And some of the sophisticated technology needed in some operations are not easy to replicate at home. There might be capacity issues or security issues to consider.

CBRE executive managing director Amanda Steele says most buildings are still open and that occupancy is still around 50 per cent overall.

Danny De Sousa

For national sustainability manager at Brookfield Properties, Danny De Sousa, it’s currently “BAU” or business as usual despite the lower number of occupants.

“Our site teams are responding to the current situation, but we still have an obligation to manage our buildings because they are open and operating.

“We’re continuing our work with our partners including Buildings Alive to reduce energy and make our buildings as efficient as possible.”

The company’s facility managers are seeing reduced energy consumption and there have been calls from retailers about this to see if the reduction in electricity usage is expected.

Some buildings have shown a 30 per cent reduction, De Sousa says.

“But some buildings are still operating at close to full capacity. It comes back to the tenant.

“Some tenants can’t operate remotely for different reasons.”

Craig Roussac

But even with an empty floor or empty building, various building systems still need to be maintained for safety and compliance requirements, including cooling tower treatment.

For airconditoining, De Sousa says there are guidelines on how this should be optimally run.

“The call is really around increased fresh air wherever you can. And that’s something we’ve been doing. We use the NABERS indoor air quality tool across our portfolio anyway.”

According to Craig Roussac, chief executive officer of Buildings Alive, most of his clients are aware of the need for vigilance, but at a broader level there’s the danger that some people will be too distracted by the crisis to stay focused on energy efficiency.

With tenants still paying the rent and the looming prospect of financial pain ahead, the last thing they will want is to end up footing a massive bill at the end of the quarter for energy they didn’t use, he says.

“There will be a whole lot of financial hardship and no one will want to see that their expenses for energy wasn’t matched to usage.”

Opportunities for savings are huge right now – far outstripping the efficiency gains possible in normal times, he says. In some cases, building occupancy has gone from thousands down to a couple of dozen.

Roussac says the issue of technology underpinning many office operations bears closer scrutiny. Some people are understood to need to leave their desktop in the office running in order to access their company’s systems at home, which adds up if the entire workforce needs to do this.

His concern is that people are too distracted, with good reason, to be asking these questions.

But tenants will still be paying the rent and they’ll want to know that facilities managers were doing everything they could to cut services so that the tenant doesn’t end up footing the bill for energy they didn’t use.

Roussac says there are big opportunities to learn right now, and his business is planning a surge of data capture to understand the current dynamics and the impacts on energy.

It will do a great deal to “further enhance our modelling and performance of the building to provide tighter, more specific insights to provide better support.”

  • With Poppy Johnston
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