Amory Lovins once quipped that “we’d find more energy in the attics of American homes than in all the oil buried in Alaska”. He’s not describing a magical energy source hiding in the roof – he’s talking about energy efficiency.
This is the first in a series of building energy efficiency articles I will be writing for the Westender. I live locally and have researched how better design and thoughtful public policy can help to improve the energy efficiency of my 1920s Queenslander home. This article talks about building energy efficiency more broadly, with later articles to focus on specific retrofit solutions for residential homes.
Let’s start by defining energy efficiency. We can think of energy efficiency as the demand side of the energy equation, with energy production on the supply side. Using less energy means less energy has to be produced, which lowers the need for more investment in energy infrastructure. The greenest and cleanest energy is the energy that doesn’t have to be produced. Energy efficiency lessens the economic, social, and environmental costs of energy and has been referred to as the world’s first fuel.
The IPCC has stated that decarbonising the world’s energy systems is an essential part of tackling the climate crisis. In Australia, this will mostly involve the continuing transformation away from our reliance on highly polluting fossil fuels, to cleaner, renewable sources of energy. What is underappreciated or overlooked is the potential for energy efficiency to contribute to this transformation.
When we talk about energy efficiency in the home, we are talking about designing a house or changing our behaviour to use less energy. Buildings use a huge amount of energy, with the energy used in residential homes alone accounting for about 11 per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions in Australia. Our behaviour matters. Energy efficiency can and should be an integral part of constructing all new homes. For existing dwellings, energy efficiency solutions can be retrofitted or upgraded to lower energy use. One example is to install roof insulation, which can help to keep our homes cool or warm, depending on the season, and will reduce the need to switch on the air-conditioner or heater. What’s more, an energy efficient home is a healthy home, and we all deserve to live in healthy, comfortable homes.
So, if energy efficiency is so important, why is it not higher on the priority list? Mostly, it’s because it’s hard to get excited about something you can’t see… and the energy we save is invisible! Energy discussions in Australia are usually dominated by debates about new coal and gas plants or the big announcement of a gigantic new solar farm. This makes sense and both topics are critically important. What the mass media understands well is that these are highly charged debates that draw attention and eyeballs. Indeed, energy efficiency expert Alan Pears has dryly noted how there are way better photo opportunities for a politician to stand in front of solar panels than in front of a double-glazed window.
Because the focus of the energy debate is skewed to energy production, energy efficiency is often overlooked, and it is not treated as the valuable resource that it is. Perhaps it’s because energy efficiency isn’t a technology, it’s more of a design feature, and because of this energy efficiency struggles to grab hold of the human psyche.
Energy efficiency can be a major part of what we do to avoid the disastrous effects of runaway climate breakdown. We can start in the home, by changing small behaviours and making minor design tweaks to improve the energy efficiency of the places we live. And there’s no better time to start than now.
Ultimately, I hope that one day terms such as green buildings and energy efficient buildings are no longer needed. I hope we just call them buildings. Kind of like organic farming should just be farming. In time, these ideas and practices will have become the status quo, and future generations would find it strange to do it any other way.