Can our existing buildings achieve net zero? 23 November 2022

Opinion article by Adjunct Associate Professor Wendy Miller

In mid-October I was privileged to be an invited expert participant to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Future Buildings Forum in Gatineau, Canada. The purpose of the Forum was to identify international RD&D activities needed to unlock deployment of low and zero carbon technologies in existing housing and buildings, and enable net zero carbon (NZC) by 2035. The Forum process, over three days, consisted of presentations from various IEA Technology Collaboration Programs (TCPs), breakout sessions on specific topics, and consolidation of session results and recommendations to identify common activities. There were approximately 80 participants from a dozen countries.

The context of the Forum is that the building sector is not on track to meet Net Zero by 2050. Meeting that target, for existing buildings and those expected to be built in the next 30 years, requires the average efficiency of buildings to be improved by 2.6 times, and a focus on decarbonising the entire value change. A ‘Deep Energy Retrofit’ in the IEA’s context encompasses passive design measures, high energy efficiency systems and integrated renewable energy. It should result in reduced carbon emissions and improved indoor environment quality and occupant comfort. The biggest gains, globally, would be achieved by addressing space heating and cooling, and water heating. Common challenges, internationally, include the need to urgently deploy and integrate available energy efficiency technologies powered by renewable energy (addressing issues such as cost and industry capacity), the need for innovation that incorporates a lifetime perspective and systemic approach, and consideration of the multiple facets of energy security.

I identified four key themes throughout the presentations and discussions and have interpreted their applicability to the Australian context.

First, there is a fundamental need for a systems approach and integrated planning for transition pathways to net zero. This means that we can’t focus on transitioning/decarbonising one sector (for example the National Electricity Market) without consideration of other sectors such as our buildings and our transport systems. Any work on Australia’s energy transition (such as the National Energy Transformation Partnership and National Energy Objectives) needs to incorporate the whole system: not just the electricity and gas sectors, but also the built environment infrastructure, building users,  and the transport sector (vehicle owners, operators, manufacturers etc). All of these sectors have significant assets that are part of our energy infrastructure system and energy markets, and can contribute to decarbonisation if invited to the table and empowered to participate.

Second, the active involvement of building occupants / users is paramount, as buildings are for people. This means that they need to be involved in the development and implementation of transition pathways. The best value from decarbonisation of buildings can likely be found if we prioritise solutions that reduce carbon but also have multiple benefits such as enhanced indoor environment quality, climate resilience, affordability, and grid flexibility. This is called the resilience dividend: where solutions for resilience to a particular threat enhance resilience to other threats as well as provide benefits in everyday life.

Third, the evaluation of options for decarbonisation, in this context the retrofitting of existing buildings, needs to be undertaken from a Whole of Life (WOL) and Total Cost of Ownership (TCOO) perspective. This contrasts with the, in my opinion, current short-termism that underpins Australia’s regulatory impact assessments to date, as exemplified in the Regulatory Impact Statement (RIS) for changing our National Construction Code. This strongly suggests that Australia needs to re-examine the current policy assessment process managed by the Office of Best Practice Regulation, as it seems to me that the current process is not fit-for-purpose in terms of achieving net zero. A WOL/TCOO approach would consider the life of the building (50-60+ years), the lifespan and operational energy of building services, the embodied energy of the building and its services and appliances, and account for the multiple benefits (resilience dividend) that could be gained from decarbonisation.

Lastly, there is a critical role for energy data and analytics to play in the development of appropriate metrics, the prediction and validation of performance, predictive maintenance, and the control and optimisation of energy flows. This encompasses concepts of data, information systems, digitisation, artificial intelligence, machine learning, simulation and modelling. What additional metrics do we need (beyond energy use intensity)? For whom? How can these metrics be captured and utilised? How can we better use data analytics for measurement, verification, compliance and disclosure? The National Energy Analytics Research program appears to be a good start.

The IEA considers that ‘energy codes’ (regulations relating to the energy use of buildings and services / appliances), are the most important method of decarbonising our buildings, towns and cities. I look forward to a time where buildings, in Australia, are considered a vital part of our electricity grid, and where our building codes and regulations work hand in hand with energy infrastructure and market reforms to achieve decarbonisation as quickly as possible.