The path to energy efficiency


In ReNew 117 we profile the new Australian Greenhouse Calculator developed by Alan Pears. His journey promoting energy efficiency has been a long one, and here he shares his experiences, and challenges, along the way.

Alan Pears, supported by a range of other specialists, has developed a series of greenhouse calculators for EPA Victoria and other organisations. Alan developed Australia’s first personal computer-based home energy auditing software in 1983. This was used for over 90,000 home assessments carried out by the Victorian Government’s Home Energy Advisory Service from 1983 to 1993, when it was shut down by the incoming Kennett government.

In the mid-1980s he developed a simplified home audit using a mark-sense sheet (like a bigger version of the Tattslotto tickets you mark with a pencil). People simply chose the options for each activity and fed it through the reading machine. An Apple 2e computer processed their data and prepared a personalised report.

In the early 1990s Alan adapted his earlier approach to run on a computer, before the advent of the graphical user interface. In 1996, with funding from EPA Victoria, he, with leading edge programmer Mike Hogan, developed a new graphics-based calculator that operated on an early version of the Windows platform. This was sold to schools but, unfortunately, did not make Alan his first million dollars.

By the late 1990s Alan was ready to take advantage of the advances of dial-up internet and CDs. And the pain of the previous projects had dulled with time. EPA Victoria again stepped forward to fund it. This time, the package included animations, extensive educational resources and two modes of operation. The simpler mode ran on the EPA’s website for many years. The full version released in 2000 was too big to work with dial-up internet, so it was sold through CSIRO Publishing. The team that produced all these resources was project managed by the Curriculum Corporation (now Education Services Australia). A spin-off of the detailed version of the transport component of the calculator was adapted for RACV, and ran on their website for many years; it still runs on the EPA Victoria website, too.

Alan then focused on developing a number of smaller calculators. He worked with the programmers and web designers who had worked on the latest greenhouse calculator, Nectarine, to produce GreenFleet’s TreeTotaller calculator, which estimated emissions from car and air travel as well as household emissions from energy bills. This still operates. He also adapted the household energy component of the EPA calculator to produce the predecessor to the NABERS Home Energy Explorer for the NSW Government.

He also worked on the infamous ABC Science on-line PlanetSlayer calculator, again with Nectarine, and with ABC personality Bernie Hobbs. The PlanetSlayer website included games (see how easily you can destroy the Earth), animations, and a calculator, developed by Alan using data from the University of Sydney’s Institute for Sustainability Assessment. After answering 12 questions, users would get feedback on how long they could live their lifestyle and not exceed the lifetime greenhouse gas emissions of an average human. This meant many Australians found they had short lives in the calculation. On the other hand, if you cut your emissions below net zero (by storing carbon and investing your money in activities that cut other people’s emissions) you could ‘live forever’ and you became a cute little piglet with wings that flew off to a wonderful future!

After running very successfully on the ABC Science website for some years, it was discovered by a conservative parliamentarian, who accused the ABC of encouraging young children to commit suicide. The publicity led to an enormous increase in the numbers visiting the calculator. By then, the calculator was somewhat dated, and with the tight budgets of the Howard government era, funding for an update could not be found. So the PlanetSlayer was slain.

In 2007, Alan was approached to develop an updated version of the Greenhouse Calculator, to run on-line and take onboard the many developments in household activities. He was convinced it was time to create ‘the mother of all calculators’! Little did he realise the agony this naive goal would lead to for him, and just about everyone who worked on the project: they all contributed far more than they were paid. EPA Victoria again led with funding, which was topped up by Sustainability Victoria and Education Services Australia, who also project managed the team. And here it is! A bit late but, through the serendipity of life, launched just at the right time to help people respond constructively to the introduction of a carbon price!

Click here to download the full version of this article, which includes details on how the Australian Greenhouse Calculator works.

A shortened version of this article originally appeared in ReNew 117.

Renew-logo-white-on-blue 534px

The Alternative Technology Association has rebranded as Renew!

Very soon, we will be launching our new Renew organisation website at this address,, full of latest news and useful information on sustainable living.

In the meantime, please choose where you’d like to go:

 Simply close this box for the Renew magazine website

Click here for the Renew/ATA organisation website