Thursday, 22 January 2015

Zombie energy efficiency

Explosive report lifts the lid on Australia’s building energy performance sham

Energy efficiency in the home building sector in Australia has been dead for some years.  It just puts on a brave show that it isn't. 

Read this if you care.  It's not pretty, but it's important.

I have been involved with Australia's Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme almost since Day 1.  NATHERS wasn't my idea, but I happened to join the SOLARCH research unit at UNSW in Sydney just when the scheme was about to be launched.  It had been project managed to that point by my boss Prof. John Ballinger.  I then had the singular privilege to deliver the address to the Australian Building Control Board conference in 1992, which set out the unique features and potential promise of the scheme.

Later, the state of New South Wales commissioned us to set up a a regulatory body to create and maintain a system of professional building assessors, who would be capable of evaluating and certifying likely energy efficiency compliance at planning approval stage.  I was the technical supervisor of the resulting HERS Management Body (HMB).  After five years that body devolved into the self-governing Association of Building Sustainability Assessors (ABSA). You can assume I was definitely an enthusiast for Nat HERS.

Eventually, I started to get impatient with why the scheme was not showing appropriate improvements in energy use in the residential sector.  I looked for technical causes, and went as far as supervising a PhD which came up with an elegant solution to the fundamental technical problems shared by many such schemes worldwide. A potted version of what drove that research can be found in our 2006 paper "Why are Rating Schemes always wrong?" downloadable here.

It is now another eight years later, and I have long become disillusioned.  So I now read the most recent report on Australia's failed building energy regulatory environment with a distinct sense of deja vu.  The report identifies a very obvious and almost predictable set of problems, spanning the whole industry, with every stakeholder group contributing to the problem. 

The most shocking is what we have known all along; the consumers themselves don't value the benefits of energy efficiency even though they would have the most to gain.
The issues are summarised as follows:
  • Planning: Little attention to orientation or master planning for energy efficiency
  • Design: Designs not optimised for energy performance or low running costs. Issues with rating schemes and rater errors. Low detail in plans
  • Certification: Sign-off culture, with no physical inspections
  • Construction: Poor practices (insulation, sealing, etc.). Product substitutions and divergence from approved designs
  • Commissioning: Not a Code requirement and not done well
  • In use: Actual energy use often higher than designed. Low awareness of energy issues among building users
  • Knowledge management: Skill and knowledge gaps throughout the chain. No mandatory accreditation or CPD in most jurisdictions
It is worth reading the full article which summarizes the report, in The Fifth Estate, (click here).

[Edit: An even better summary and commentary is has now become available on Architecture+Design.  Click here.]

The report does make recommendations for a way forward, but it warns that the cultural shift won't be easy, and it is likely to take a long time.  Do we have that much time?  I feel painfully that here in Australia we have wasted the opportunities of the last twenty years. It's no consolation that I have known it for some time.

Read the full report.

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