Better buildings offer shortcut to a brighter energy future

Australia is at an energy crossroads. If we continue on the same path, there are a lot of hazards looming along the road.

Energy costs are rising fast. Our energy infrastructure is creaking at the seams, unable to cope with peak demand. Sometimes in summer, it just can’t handle the load and we’re plunged into blackouts. At the same time, our climate obligations under the Paris agreement mean we need to reduce our emissions, and quickly.

The recent Finkel Report laid out the stark reality: currently 77 per cent of our energy comes from dirty black or brown coal, 10 per cent from gas, and only 13 per cent from renewables. Professor Alan Finkel recommended that we replace ageing coal power stations and acknowledged the increasing contribution of distributed energy generation, like the rooftop solar that now adorns more than 1.6 million Australian homes.

Suzanne Toumbourou

There is a shortcut to lower emissions and cheaper energy bills, which can take some of the strain off our overloaded infrastructure. That shortcut goes via better buildings.

Buildings are crucial to our energy use. They use more than half of the electricity consumed in Australia, and are responsible for nearly a quarter of all carbon emissions. Reducing their demand for energy, and encouraging them to generate their own power, will help ease the pressure on our overload infrastructure, cut bills and lower emissions.

The National Construction Code governs minimum standards for Australian buildings. The energy provisions in the code are going to be updated in 2019. Every new building and major renovation must be built to the code, so even small changes can have a big effect when rolled out across millions of new homes and workplaces.

By 2030, buildings built after the next code comes into effect in 2019 could make up more than 25 per cent of residential and 26 per cent of commercial stock. By 2050, this could increase to 52 per cent of residential and a whopping 59 per cent of commercial stock.

If the code can enshrine key measures to make these buildings more efficient, we could save not just emissions, but money.

The Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council’s (ASBEC) Low Carbon, High Performance report showed how increased energy efficiency in our buildings could save $20 billion by 2030 – but only if we improve the minimum standards for buildings, equipment and appliances.

Now, ASBEC and ClimateWorks Australia are working towards an industry vision for the future of Australia’s building stock. We have partnered on a project to develop an industry-led, evidence-based pathway for the adoption of ambitious long-term targets for the energy performance requirements in the National Construction Code.

An Issues Paper, to be formally released Wednesday 12 July, is calling for input from all parts of the industry – from architects, designers, planners and engineers to building companies and developers.

Working with CRC for Low Carbon Living as a technical partner, we’ll release an interim report in November stating the measures industry thinks the code needs to take to get us to lower emission, energy efficient buildings. Our final report will be released in March 2018.

Technology doesn’t stand still – it constantly changes and improves, with today’s pie-in-the-sky dream being tomorrow’s standard operation. At the same time, the code itself continues to evolve, with updates scheduled at three-year intervals. Over the coming nine months, the Building Code Energy Performance Trajectory Project will lay out a clear direction for the future evolution of the energy requirements in the code.

A continuously improving code will provide the market certainty needed to support innovation and investment by manufacturers and industry. For example, if builders know energy efficiency requirements are x today but will be x+1 next year, they are more likely to invest the time, effort and resources to implement higher performance building designs and technologies at lower cost to meet those future standards.

All this might sound pretty dry, but it has a major effect on the lives of the people living and working in our buildings. Energy efficient buildings are much cheaper to run, meaning lower bills for households and businesses. Buildings that use measures like natural light and employ the latest technology to keep cool or warm provide much greater comfort for those who use them, and greater protection in extreme weather.

Another reason that energy efficient buildings provide a shortcut to a better energy future is speed. If we improve the code and start building better buildings, the effects will be felt very quickly across our building stock.

Australia is truly at an energy crossroads, and we need to choose our path. Are we going to take the fast track to rising energy costs, ageing infrastructure and out of control carbon emissions? Or will we take the shortcut to a brighter future offered by building better buildings?

Suzanne Toumbourou is executive director at ASBEC.

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