The Fifth Estate

By Cameron Jewell

It was an all-star line-up at the Australian Alliance to Save Energy’s 2XEP Forum on Doubling Energy Productivity this week, with high-profile guests including US sister organisation president Kateri Callahan, adjunct professor in sustainability Robert Hill of the US Studies Centre and former White House climate advisor Heather Zichal, whose speech included a warning to the Australian government to get serious on climate policy.

An interesting session The Fifth Estate attended was on residential buildings energy efficiency, with a panel featuring the familiar faces of adjunct professor Alan Pears from RMIT University; Cecille Weldon, head of sustainable real estate at LJ Hooker; Professor Deo Prassad, chief executive of the CRC for Low Carbon Living; Barry Lynham from Knauf Insulation; and the Department of Industry’s building efficiency manager Gene McGlynn as chair.

The average household paid $39 on energy bills a week, Mr McGlynn said, which didn’t seem like a lot but added up to around $16 billion a year nationwide.

The potential for the resi sector to help improve energy productivity was huge, he said, and energy efficiency in houses had contributed more to the fall in electricity demand in Australia than any other factor.

Houses built last year used 30 per cent less than houses built six years ago, even as appliance use had grown, and there was still a great deal to go.

Resi is “a really big deal”, he said.

Unsurprisingly, Alan Pears agreed. While building standards had improved in Australia, he said, our 2011 building standards would still be illegal in many countries. There’s plenty of room to move — the potential is for an 80 per cent reduction.

One inspiring example he mentioned was Team UOW’s Illawarra Flame House, which won the “Energy Olympics” in China last year.

This, Pears said, showed that Australia, when given the opportunity, could mix it with the best.

Barry Lynham, meanwhile, gave a warning that Australia risked being “way, way behind the rest of the world” if it didn’t tackle residential energy efficiency.

Policy levers mentioned included interest rate or property tax discounts for efficient new builds. Measures like these have seen 50 per cent of new builds in Germany at 50 per cent more efficient than the already high standard.

People needed to go out and campaign for improved housing efficiency in Australia, though.

“Governments listen to people who make noise,” he said.

Next was Cecille Weldon, who has spearheaded LJ Hooker’s Liveability sustainability training and marketing project.

The take-home message from Weldon, who has a deep knowledge of sociolinguistics (which looks at the relationship between language and social and cultural values), was that energy efficiency or energy productivity wasn’t going to cut it for consumers in the residential sphere.

“Energy efficiency is not sexy. Running costs is the magic word,” she said, which would pique the interest of buyers, who get that language and how it relates to their everyday life.

The focus needed to be on existing properties, too, Weldon said.

“What the hell are we doing focusing on new homes?” she asked.

The vast majority of potential is in existing homes.

Real estate agents, she admitted, have been a barrier to sustainability.

LJ Hooker was attempting to change this, she said, with the Liveability program able to be used by other agents, independently of LJ Hooker and the intellectual property now held by a newly created independent organisation.

Professor Deo Prasad said that cost needn’t be a large barrier to energy efficiency upgrades.

Around a 35–40 per cent reduction in energy use could be done at little to no cost, with payback periods of around four years. Extend that payback to eight years, and you start to reach up to 70 per cent.

Water heating and space heating and cooling had the largest potential for energy reductions, he said.

He gave the example of Josh’s House, which was 10-star NatHERS and only cost five per cent more to build.

This article was originally published at The Fifth Estate