The Australian federal government is expected to announce a national energy efficiency scheme following months of consultation with industry and numerous submissions from stakeholders. But will the scheme bring the drive that is needed to change the way we think about and use energy, and are we taking any of this seriously enough? The answer to the latter part of the question from those working in sustainable design and advocacy is a resounding no. We need to get serious – and fast – they say.
With the residential sector responsible for 17.6 per cent of Australia’s carbon emissions, according to figures from the Department of Climate Change, improving energy efficiency in Australian homes was to be a big policy drive for the Rudd-led government. Instead it proved to be a thorn in its side with the home insulation program, green loans and solar panel schemes all unravelling.
Then there was the Council of Australian Governments’ commitment to increase the minimum housing energy requirement from 5 to 6 Stars, but even that is proving difficult to get over the line, with the states and territories stalling over technicalities.
It all sounded pretty straight forward last year when COAG agreed to increase energy efficiency requirements for new residential buildings to six stars, or equivalent, nationally in the 2010 update of the Building Code of Australia, as well as introducing new efficiency requirements for hot water systems and lighting.
But 12 months down the track progress has been slow. There is not yet uniform agreement across the states and territories. “Negotiations” are ongoing, and there is considerable variation in what the states have agreed to introduce, despite the COAG directive.
Caroline Pidcock, a leading sustainability and architectural commentator and current industry representative member of the Australian Building Codes Board, says it is time Australia got serious about energy efficiency and the states and territories stopped fiddling around.
“COAG has made the directive for building codes to be updated nationally but state ministers don’t seem to understand the implications of COAG. It is very contradictory,” says Pidcock.
A number of tools are used to determine energy efficiency ratings in Australia, including the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS) which uses AccuRate software developed by the CSIRO. Under NatHERS, star ratings are determined by energy consumption per unit area in a regional “climate zone” based on extremes of local weather conditions.
All this refers to the potential operation of the house – the energy used depends entirely on how the occupants use the house.
The resistance to change by housing and building industry groups is not helping either, says Pidcock. The Housing Industry Association and Master Builders Association were both critical of the timing of the upgrade from five to six stars for housing, particularly in the wake of the global financial crisis which impacted on the construction sector.
The MBA, in its recent submission to the Prime Minister’s Task Group on energy efficiency, says it is concerned the government’s decision to delay the emissions trading scheme will put extra pressure on the building sector to reduce emissions. It also wants the emphasis of energy efficiency upgrades to be on existing housing stock not new construction.