Efficiency Leader - Carlos Flores 02 September 2021
The energy management sector is made up of many passionate professionals.
Carlos leads the National Australian Built Environment Rating System (NABERS), which, along with the Commercial Building Disclosure program, is one of Australia's most successful sustainability initiatives. Carlos is one of Australia's representatives to the International Energy Agency’s Energy in Buildings and Communities (IEA EBC) Programme. You can read more about the work of the IEA EBC and Australia's involvement in this global research conglomerate here.
NABERS is managed by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment on behalf of the Federal, State and Territory governments of Australia, and is at the heart of Australia's environmental policy for the commercial building sector.
Can you explain your role at NABERS?
I work with over 40 colleagues who run all aspects of the NABERS program, from training, engineering, and technology to energy, waste and water.
What did you do prior to your current role?
I first secured a 3-week contract with NABERS, a few months after I moved to Australia, to help cover for someone going on leave. That led to a 6-month contract, and I’ve been working here for a decade now. I landed in building sustainability by accident, really, as there weren’t many jobs in this field back in Chile.
Before coming to Australia, I worked on energy policy for a big environmental institute at the University of Chile, one of the biggest state universities in South America. I worked on figuring out how renewable energy, one day, could be cheaper than gas and other fossil fuels. All those things back then seemed in the very distant future (laughs). I also worked on driving energy efficiency at scale across diverse sectors.
How would you describe the role NABERS plays in the energy management market and Australia’s energy transition?
NABERS is the largest sustainability initiative for buildings in Australia. We focus on helping organisations significantly reduce their environmental impact. We work primarily on the demand side, meaning we focus on the buildings and businesses which are the actual users of energy, water and waste.
Many people think of NABERS as a program for ‘buildings, but the reality is that most of the sectors we work with don’t think of themselves as part of the built environment. Hotels think of themselves as part of the ‘accommodation and hospitality sector, hospitals are part of the ‘healthcare’ sector and data centres part of the ‘technology’ sector. However, what these and many other sectors across the Australian economy have in common is that they operate largely inside of buildings, and therefore share many similarities when it comes to their environmental footprints. Our mission is to help these organisations to reduce their energy use, carbon emissions and environmental footprint. And because of climate change and other urgent environmental challenges we are facing, we need to achieve this with as many organisations as possible, as fast as possible.
What do you enjoy about working with the NABERS team?
We’ve got a great culture here at NABERS. I work with over 40 colleagues who are not just extremely talented, but who have worked for years to create a work environment with a strong sense of purpose and a culture of trust and openness. It is about as strong a culture I have ever seen in a government program, and I am really proud to be a small part of it.
Our team is also really diverse, with talented people from many different professional backgrounds, and from all continents around the world. I’m constantly amazed at how much my colleagues care about the quality of the work we do at NABERS, how quick everyone is at helping others, at acknowledging mistakes, and at finding great solutions. I am mindful that working in this team will be one of the highlights of my career, so I try to enjoy every moment.
How has working from home been and how do you stay connected with your team when you aren’t in the office?
We were already working from home two days a week before the pandemic, so we had some systems in place to adapt to remote working. We’ve been using Slack and video conferencing apps for years now, so when COVID hit, everything moved quickly and we were in place to work from home. We’ve dedicated one day a week to have an “office day”- when things return to normal - where we can engage with our colleagues and celebrate birthdays. At the moment, we make it a point to celebrate the wins of colleagues in our regular team. We are currently in lockdown, so all our meetings are online. But we have become really good at connecting digitally, and about creating spaces to celebrate wins by our colleagues in our regular team meetings. We have a rolling chair for every team meeting, and someone recently came up with the idea of the Chair starting the meeting by telling us a story about their lives we might not know about. It has been an instant success, and a wonderful way to learn more about your colleagues in terms of what drives them and motivates them. Hearing these amazing stories has been one of the highlights of every fortnight for me, and has helped keeps spirits up and stay connected during the lockdown. Our slack community is really lively – our team members post an average of about 40 messages a day! During the lockdown, I have enjoyed working with my wife and be able to share a bit more of each other’s work lives with each other. I’ve used my former commuting time to allocate to additional exercise, reading, or listening to a podcast.
How do you champion energy efficiency in your own home?
As many people in our generation in Australia, I am waiting to save and purchase a home. Currently, I rent, so I have control over appliances to make sure they are relatively efficient. For example, all my lighting is LED, and we try to minimise heating and cooling. However, I feel like I am a very stereotypical case of the challenges of renting and trying to live sustainably in Australia. Our unit is very leaky, has virtually no insulation and there is little prospect the owner will be willing to invest to do something about it. This is the experience of so many renters in our country, and certainly an area we need to make a lot more progress in the future. There is a lot of progress to be made in terms of enhancing sustainability across the residential buildings sector, but thankfully there are many people trying to change that around.
When you’re not immersed in Australia’s energy transition, what do you do for fun?
I play guitar and sing sometimes. I play a lot of soccer and listen to tons of podcasts.
What do you value about working with the Energy Efficiency Council?
Ah, the EEC! I love working with EEC and their members including energy services companies, who are at the very core of what we do at NABERS. Working closely with people in the energy services industry has been a big part of driving change and the EEC is an incredibly thoughtful, helpful, and insightful peak industry body. They have been on the NABERS steering committee for over 15 years and play an important role by bringing insights from the industry to us. They tell us about issues we need to tackle, which areas need change, and how to best facilitate that change. Every time I go to an EEC forum meeting, they tell us what we’re doing well and not, and work with us to drive solutions, so it’s a really fertile ground to make progress in the next couple of decades. I feel fortunate to work with the EEC in achieving concrete change as fast as we can and this also shapes the direction of NABERS.
How does Australia benefit from engaging in the International Energy Agency’s Energy in Buildings and Communities Program (IEA EBC)?
A lot of the issues tackled by IEA EBC are central for buildings to contribute to tackling climate change and other environmental issues, including the challenge of making buildings healthy and comfortable for occupants. To be able to address these issues at the speed we need to address them, we need to be willing to share the breakthroughs, lessons, and outcomes. To me, they are a highway for sharing between academics working on these issues across the world. Since the pandemic, it’s been harder to meet in person, but one thing has been a silver lining – it has made it easier for Australia to be a meaningful contributor to the IEA EBC. Some of the technological changes have increased the value for participants in Australia. This forum helps access some of the brightest minds in energy and buildings and make progress.
What are you currently excited about in the energy world and where do you see Australia’s energy management markets in 2030?
There is lot of momentum behind the environment movement, and I really think this momentum is unstoppable. There are more companies taking real action in sustainability and more professionals working in this field than ever before. We are seeing whole parts of the economy starting to move on climate change and sustainability, which is exciting. However, this doesn’t mean we are moving fast enough. We have a narrow window of opportunity to avoid dangerous climate change from becoming a reality. So while the current momentum is great to see, we need to significantly increase the pace of this change.
In terms of where I would love to see the energy sector in 2030, I have a personal aspiration that will not be easy, but which we know is entirely achievable. Much of the office and shopping centres sectors in Australia reduced their onsite energy use by around 30% last decade. These sectors achieved last decade, with the technology and expertise we had available then. My aspiration is that this decade, we achieve that across the entire built environment, where that kind of energy savings have not been realised at scale. They are still there, but now they are a lot easier to realise and even more cost-effective than they already were before. If we could find a way to do that, the built environment could deliver truly huge emissions carbon savings by 2030, along with billions of dollars of savings to businesses and households.
And like most people working in building sustainability, I would also like to see a lot of progress on some of the hardest issues we need to tackle in the next few decades. We need to tackle carbon emissions from embodied materials and to significantly grow the market for all-electric building technologies. I also hope we make major progress on the role of buildings around demand management, having buildings, cities, and networks playing a coordinating role to best manage our electricity system. The solutions here are still evolving, but addressing this will be key to decarbonise the electricity grid as fast as possible.
This article was originally published in the September edition of Efficiency Insight.