How to build on Australia’s solar rollout

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If you think the cement and steel industries are hard to abate, Luke Menzel, CEO of Australia’s Energy Efficiency Council, makes the point that they’re homogenous — you can talk to them as a group — and besides, they’re waiting for technologies that will enable them to decarbonise. Much more complex is the abatement of the built environment, for which we have the necessary abatement technologies — rooftop solar, batteries, digital management of electricity in buildings large and small — but which is hard to communicate with because it is dispersed and in the hands of individuals and organisations that are subject to other pressures.

pv magazine Australia is at the Clean Energy Council’s All-Energy Conference in Melbourne. Back after a three-year Covid-induced hiatus, the conference on its first day revisited the importance of energy efficiency in the global transition to renewables. “There’s no point,” said Gareth O’Reilly, Pacific Zone President of Schneider Electric, during the opening plenary panel on demand-side management of energy, “creating additional supply if you’re pouring it into a leaky bucket.”

The panel noted that in recent years, Australians have been told that gas, the famously touted transition fuel of the former Liberal-National coalition government, is the way forward. So householders are now inclined to forestall electrifying their stoves, and water and home heating.

Businesses, on the other hand, are battling energy price rises caused by a confluence of global conditions, and many can’t contemplate spending to electrify processes, or on efficiency measures, despite paybacks in the medium term.

Mixed messages and lack of clear intent to decarbonise before the Labor Party won power earlier this year have muddied the motivation of many people to start or continue their journey towards net zero. 

The policy vacuum created by the former government has not yet been filled and the All-Energy plenary sessions, which sought to balance renewable energy generation with demand, called for more incentives that will encourage wholesale change. Helping disadvantaged households tap into energy efficiency and access solar’s cheap bounty was high on the agenda.

Why pursue energy efficiencies if solar is so low cost?

In support of driving energy efficiency, Anna Malos, Country Lead in Australia for the Climateworks Centre, said, “Every unit of energy that we don’t use, we don’t have to generate, and that makes the whole system cheaper.”

O’Reilly described how industrial companies could apply continuous-improvement thinking to process efficiency and optimisation in order to better “compete and win”.

He said “Building onsite renewables is super important,” and gave the example of a Victorian food processing business that installed a behind-the-meter solar-and-battery microgrid: “When they found they had excess electricity generation during the day, they electrified part of their [previously gas driven] heated drying process, and they’re now insulated from imported-energy inflation.”

The effect on energy-challenged households of better insulation that helps maintain even slightly higher indoor temperatures in winter can also be dramatic. Menzel referred to the Victorian Healthy Homes Research Findings  report released in September, which assessed the outcomes of upgrading the thermal efficiency of 1,000 homes occupied by the state’s elderly and most vulnerable citizens.

The upgrades cost an average of $2,809 per household, and their first winter delivered healthcare savings of $887 per person — calculated against what people would have required in medications and hospitalisation over the period. As importantly, recipients reported reduced breathlessness and improved quality of life. 

Heating the street!

“Australia has the leakiest homes in the world”, says Fiona Grey, CEO of RENEW, an independent group providing governments, households and industry with expert advice on solutions to household sustainability.

But there are also beacons of innovation in the built environment, providing use cases of what works and what’s possible, and informing how emerging and established digital technologies might be shaped to support best deployment of current and future energy.

An All-Energy session, Building a better future: Renewable energy in the built environment, explored the work of property developer Mirvac; “lifestyle” purveyor Ingenia (which envisions and creates communities for different markets, from holiday parks to retirement living); Brimbank City Council in Victoria: and Breathe sustainable architects, which works in various built sectors including hospitality.

All consistently apply rooftop solar, combined with fuel switching from gas to electricity and energy efficiency measures to buildings with outcomes that are helping to change minds and influence people.

For example, Breathe Director of Architecture and Sustainability, Bonnie Herring, has found in her work with cafe and restaurant businesses that, “Hospitality operators think gas is more efficient than electricity, but induction is much more efficient than gas,” because it only heats the pot or pan, rather than the surrounding air. Operating cost savings, she says, quickly offset the higher capital costs of installing induction cooktops. “Electric kitchens,” she adds, are also “cooler, with better air quality” than gas-powered kitchens.

Energy-wise council

Ross Kingston, Acting Sustainability coordinator at Brimbank council explained that although councils are largely at the forefront of decarbonisation efforts, and implementing building design  standards, there is one common holdout for local governments in the form of neighbourhood aquatic and leisure centres, which can be responsible for up to 90% of council gas use.

“The incumbent technology model for aquatic centres in Victoria,” he explains, “is a unitary gas boiler to do all the heating that an aquatic centre needs, and separate chillers and air conditioning units for all the cooling needs.”

Brimbank’s St Albans Leisure Centre was in a state of disrepair, and Council worked on upgrading it to become the Brimbank Aquatic and Wellness Centre.

That is, says Kingston, “We switched to a four-pipe heat pump technology powered by onsite (500 kW of solar) and offsite renewables,” to provide simultaneous heating and cooling, a combined solution which he says delivered considerable efficiencies. “And the third component of our technology model was thermal energy storage to store excess solar production.”

High sustainability standards for renters

In the meantime, Mirvac has begun construction of its fourth build-to-rent development as part of its LIV Future Portfolio pipeline of 2,200 apartments. The aim of the portfolio is to provide long-term homes for renters only, which are financed by institutional investors.

Says Angela Buckley, General Manager of Mirvac’s Build To Rent initiative, “We fundamentally believe it’s one of the few opportunities to really drive fantastic ESG outcomes and objectives in the living space.” She cites in-house customer research that says “92% of Australians want to live more sustainable lives, but only 16% are actually doing it. We think we have the platform to make it easier to live more sustainable lives.”

The portfolio’s buildings are all completely powered by renewable energy and target a 7.5-star average on the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERs). Mirvac chooses and provides the most sustainable white goods for its apartments, and helps its largely (70%) millennial customer base understand what their decision to live in its apartments contributes to decarbonisation of Australian home life.

“We do that in a fun, almost gamified way,” says Buckley. “Through the embedded network that we have within the building, and the energy monitoring systems, we almost challenge our residents to think about who’s using the most and the least, which adds to the community element and bands people together as a whole.” The attendant aim is to co-create next-level energy solutions with the residents.

Such projects demonstrate that decarbonising Australia’s built environment is possible and delivers myriad benefits. Building a better future panellists agree that strengthened rating systems for buildings — such as NatHERs and the Green Building Council of Australia’s Green Star system — will help finance providers understand what defines a green building and thereby help developers and organisations access finance to upgrade or get greener greenfield developments up and sustainably running.

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