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How to have zero emissions housing – and tiny power bills – in ten years

Switch off the heater, you won’t need it. IceSabre/Flickr

A new study says that all Australia’s existing housing could be retrofitted to be zero emissions within ten years. Households could halve their energy use and go gas free. Australian households currently spend approximately A$15 billion every year on electricity and gas bills: this could be largely eliminated. Making this change would not only meet our emissions reduction targets but place Australia as a leader in a future carbon-constrained world.

The plan, launched today by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) as part of the Zero Carbon Australia project, is a follow up to the Stationary Energy Plan, which showed how Australia’s electricity could be supplied by 100% renewable energy sources within 10 years.

Most Australian homes are based on designs from a time when energy was cheap and plentiful, and we weren’t aware of the impact CO2 was having on our climate. Consequently, Australian homes are poorly built for our conditions, wasteful and often uncomfortable. But we can fix them with technology we’ve already got.

Energy freedom

The key points for households are:

  • Energy use could be halved. This would be partly through simple improvements in design, such as better insulation, better windows and doors that keep heat where we want it, shading, and reflective roof paint to keep houses cool. Uncontrolled draughts would be replaced with controlled ventilation. The rest would be done with more efficient appliances: electric heat pumps for heating and hot water (these are considerably more efficient than gas), induction cooking and LED lighting.

  • Households could go gas-free, switching gas appliances for higher-efficiency electric appliances. Why switch off gas? While it’s lower emissions than coal-fired electricity, it’s much higher emissions than electricity from renewable sources.

  • Households could become renewable electricity power stations, through use of rooftop solar panels. Beyond Zero Emissions’ previous report on stationary energy shows all households should be able to be powered from renewables. This has been backed up by more recent reports from other sources.

  • Houses could be cosier in winter, cooler in summer, and healthier year-round.

Businesses could also reduce energy use by extensive retrofitting and by installing solar cells on rooftops. This in combination with the elimination of gas is shown to reduce energy use by half with the installation costing no more than business as usual.

All of these would have a significant impact on our energy related emissions. And the retrofitting work for households alone would create around 50,000 jobs in the trades sector.

How do we get there?

The plan is ambitious, but the barriers to achieving it aren’t technological: we have everything we need to make it happen.

There are financial barriers for individual households and businesses. To achieve the plan, households particularly will need incentives or ways to offset initial costs against future savings. For example, interest-free loans could be given to carry out the work, or retrofits could form part of a household energy agreement with their retailer.

And of course, there are sizable economic and political hurdles; for example, to eliminating the use of gas. Gas is a significant industry in Australia, and re-purposing infrastructure, technology, resources - and most importantly jobs - needs to be approached carefully or the good intentions will be met by anger.

Other industries will be affected, including electricity and most importantly, energy exports. Policies of energy reduction in Australia will need to extend to our coal and gas export sector or we will be seen as hypocrites. Without a global approach, our emissions reductions efforts will be ineffectual.

But with international action on energy and carbon growing, and limited non-renewable resources, transition in fossil fuel sectors is inevitable. Australia can benefit from leading the pack, rather than following or being forced into a corner by international or natural restrictions.

Australia has committed to reducing its emissions. While aiming for a zero carbon country in any time frame is way beyond what is in any current policy, reports like this show we can radically improve on current clean energy and climate policies. We have the technology.

The good news is transitioning to this sort of world has become easier and cheaper as technology improves. Moving to 100% renewable energy is now A$37 billion cheaper compared to the figures reached in Beyond Zero Emissions’s previous report on stationary energy.

It is now time to deal with the non-technical social and political aspects that require strong leadership. You may look at this report and think “but that will never happen”. The challenge is this: assume it can be done and then find a way to do it.

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