Dec 14, 2014: All New Homes to be Energy Positive by 2016.

Dear Santa, what I would like for Christmas this year is for the Australian Government to pass legislation requiring that, by 2016, every new home be designed and built to make more energy than it uses.

Is that really too much to ask?

On the one hand, if we look at the poor standard of energy performance in most new homes in Australia; or if we look at the Abbott Government’s record of doing everything possible to move in completely the opposite direction; or we think about what it might take to persuade the authorities (let alone the building industry) to accept such a dramatic shift from current practice; it would be easy to pass this off as completely impossible and unrealistic.

On the other hand, I think it’s fair to say that it is completely possible and could realistically be made to happen if there was any sort of political will in that direction. At the very least I think it’s worth floating the idea and explaining why I think it could, and should, be made to happen.

Why should new homes be energy positive when there are millions of old homes that have terrible energy performance?

On hearing about the Greeny Flat, a number of knowledgeable people have suggested that our focus needs to be on upgrading the existing building stock because that’s where the biggest portion of the fossil fuels consumed by buildings is being used. While I completely agree that it is vital to upgrade the existing building stock I also think it is vital to dramatically improve the energy performance of new buildings, otherwise we’ll be having to go back in ten or twenty years time and upgrade the buildings that we’re building now. From my 25 years of experience I can knowingly say that adding insulation or double glazing or energy efficient heating, cooling, hot water, and ventilation systems to existing buildings is much more expensive, difficult, and complicated than building them right in the first place.

I think the place to start is by ‘future proofing’ our new buildings, i.e. building them to a standard that will meet the needs of the foreseeable future. We can clearly see that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, we are going to have to stop burning fossil fuels. This means that our buildings will need to make more energy than they use. So let’s start building them that way now.

But isn’t it incredibly difficult and expensive to make a building energy positive?

In the case of commercial buildings, particularly high-rise ones, it can indeed be a very difficult and expensive proposition because they have high energy demands and relatively small roof areas (i.e. not much room for solar panels). Nevertheless it can still be possible to make a skyscraper ‘Net Zero Energy’ as the following article indicates. Net Zero Energy Skyscraper in Indonesia For the purposes of this article I would like to focus on homes in Australia where the relatively low energy requirements (due to our mild climate) and the relatively large roof areas (due to most homes being only one or two stories tall) make it much, much easier to achieve the energy positive goal.

In fact projects like the Greeny Flat and Glenn and Lee Robinson’s home in Bundanoon are proving that it can be quite easy and affordable to design and build homes that make more energy than they use. Both of these projects were built using standard, off-the-shelf materials and systems combined with simple, common-sense passive solar design. Both make about twice as much energy as they consume. And both were built on very tight budgets. I have discussed  the costs associated with the Greeny Flat in previous newsletters but the Robinson’s house is an exceptional example of affordable sustainability with a finished cost per square meter of only $1500.

Glenn and Lee Robinson's affordable, energy positive home in Bundanoon, NSW.

Glenn and Lee Robinson’s affordable, energy positive home in Bundanoon, NSW.

So, no, it is not necessarily difficult or expensive to build energy positive homes. Yes, double-glazed windows are more expensive than single-glazed. Yes, solar power systems cost money. But if we build smaller, simpler homes (and let’s face it, there is not reason why Australians need to have the largest average size for new homes anywhere in the world at 214 sq.m and do we really need those marble benchtops from Italy?) then we can afford to add the improved insulation, energy efficient systems, and renewable energy production required to make a home energy positive.

One final point on affordability is that, if we build a home that is energy positive then the operating costs will be very, very low (so far the Greeny Flat has averaged $0.73c/day to run the entire house) which will save the occupants a fortune over the life of the home.

OK, so it can be done, but you’ll never get the politicians to agree!

Admittedly, as long as the Abbott Government is in power in Australia, it is HIGHLY unlikely that a measure like this would ever be considered. But it is worth noting that in the UK it has been mandated that all new homes are to be ‘zero carbon’ by 2016. Below is a quote from the British Government’s 2006 consultation document ‘Building a Greener Future: Towards Zero Carbon Development‘.

As a final step, we are proposing that all new homes are zero carbon by 2016 – within a decade. For a new home to be genuinely zero carbon it will need to deliver zero carbon (net over the year) for all energy use in the home – cooking, washing and electronic entertainment appliances as well as space heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and hot water. This will require renewable or very low carbon energy in addition to high levels of insulation, etc.

Since 2006, when the above paper was written, the British Government has adopted these recommendations and, ‘a commitment to delivering zero carbon homes from 2016 was included in the Budget 2013′ (from UK Parliament Briefing Paper, Nov 18th, 2013) . The astonishing thing for anyone familiar with the Abbott Government’s record so far is that this came about with the Conservative Party in power in Britain under the leadership of David Cameron.

If the Poms can do it, so can we.

In conclusion I would like to make the case that, if the British Government under the Conservative Party can pass legislation mandating that all new homes be Zero Carbon by 2016 then there is absolutely no reason why the Australian Government could not mandate that all new homes be energy positive by 2016 too.

Now I just have to hope that I’ve been good this year and Santa will grant my wish, right?

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