With so much effort having gone into green building and construction throughout Australia, a recent report from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showing that overall household energy consumption was on the rise and that household energy consumption per capita had not improved over the past decade was truly sobering.
A number of sustainability consultants and respected professionals on the topic from around the country have chimed in on the subject of why household energy consumption levels are not improving despite industry and government efforts in this area and what can governments, households themselves and the housing construction industry can do to address the situation.
Five common themes emerged from the interviews.
1) Changed consumption.
One interesting issue revolves around a possible linkage between energy efficiency and overall consumer purchasing patterns.
Nigel Howard, managing director of Sydney-based environmental research consultancy Edge Environment, talks of a ‘feedback loop’ where part of the money saved through energy efficiency is spent on the purchase of goods and appliances which consume energy.
Matt Williams, a sustainability manager at Lend Lease in Sydney, agrees, saying that cheap manufacturing and labour out of China and elsewhere has enabled households to own more energy consuming appliances such as cheap air conditioning, cheap fridges and multiple and bigger TVs.
2) Wrong focus.
While he applauds the ‘heroic’ efforts of the Building Code of Australia (BCA) to harmonise building requirements, Howard says regulations around the country tend to over-emphasise the role of insulation in mild climate zones and adopt a myopic approach with regard to insulation of fabric yet not sufficiently address ventilation losses and leakiness of homes. Meanwhile, he says, hot water – a key component of household energy use – is virtually ignored.
Steve Watson, a sustainable building consultant in Tasmania, agrees on the subject of hot water. Watson says in his home state, it is possible to purchase an electric hot water system in a new house without any consideration of efficiency, though that is not the case in all states/territories.
“This sort of thing has to change,” he declares.
3) Standby power.
Respondents commonly referred to the small power usage being accumulated through 24/7 standby power.
Paul Wiszniak, an Adelaide-based specialist in sustainability and smart grid societal technologies at energy technologies firm Wattwatchers, a subsidiary of the Energy Savings Network Group, calls this a ‘silent scourge’, and says standby power takes up 200 to 300 watts per hour for 8,760 hours per year in most family sized homes.
Howard agrees that serious problems exist in this area, adding that ‘the old beer fridge in the garage’ is also a nightmare.
4) Upgrade existing stock.
Watson says thermal performance standards in the BCA have gone almost as far as they can and that much more emphasis is now required on existing building stock.
A key area in this regard, he says, revolves around disclosure. As a first step toward mandatory performance levels at the point of sale or lease with penalties for non-compliance, Watson wants a mandatory disclosure scheme regarding building energy performance in residential buildings similar to that currently in place for the commercial sector. This, he says, would force the upgrading of many existing buildings.
5) Lack of visibility.
Wiszniak, who says Wattwatchers technology is aimed at addressing concerns in this area, says most home occupants throughout Australia do not have access to real-time energy use information or the tools engage with and understand their energy consumption.
Williams, who relates trying to save energy without such information to attempting to drive a car without a speedometer or fuel gauge, agrees this area is a problem and wants smart metering to be mandated across all states.
To demonstrate how such information could lead to better decision making, Williams uses his own household as an example. He often leaves using the dishwasher until night (he was automatically switched on to time use tariffs upon installing a solar system) to minimise peak energy load, but his wife likes to run the dryer when she wants to (though he acknowledges her efforts at keeping the household going).
“Now, if I had an energy meter that could show her the cost difference in real time, maybe she could be more actively persuaded …” he says.
Does it Matter?
Finally, Watson raises broader questions about how much focus should be given to reducing overall energy consumption.
Rather than necessarily reducing energy use, for example, Watson says improvements in thermal performance might instead allow householders to heat more rooms in the house, resulting in greater comfort and beneficial health impacts (less mould growth, reduced asthma problems) for substantially the same overall amounts of energy used.
He also says data relating to overall amounts of household energy consumption may not tell the full story since it does not account for changes in the source of that energy. Indeed, the ABS estimates that more than 600,000 households now have solar power, up from virtually zero only a few years ago. This suggests that an increasing portion of energy being consumed throughout the country is coming from environmentally friendly sources.
Watson says there is no single answer or ultimate panacea in terms of ways to address household energy use challenges.
“Unfortunately it is a complex and multi-faceted problem that is not going to be addressed easily by one or two policies or strategies,” he says.