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ReNew 144 editorial: Time to get smarter

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There’s a lot to weigh up when you’re considering the sustainability of smart homes. As the tech evolves, are we just creating a new e-waste stream, with older devices relegated to junk far sooner than they should be? On the other hand, perhaps we should get excited about the potential for smart devices to run our homes to maximise sustainability: turning off heating when no one’s home, opening windows to access cool air at the right time of the day, or letting us turn off an appliance remotely if it’s been left on by mistake.

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Many homes already have some smart tech, from smart TVs, washing machines and dishwashers, through to smart energy monitoring and control systems. Given that, we thought it was a good time to do a general survey of the smart tech area and ask when it could help sustainability. And where can the smart version of a device be better?

We consider gimmick versus potential: we look at smart plugs, solar diverters, and, yes, Google Nest and Apple Homekit. There’s also the well-named If This, Then That, a cloud service for those times when your smart devices don’t play well together.

In a second special feature, we look at efficient electric heating. The ATA’s latest research shows that getting off gas can have both environmental and financial benefits, so we consider the options when shifting from gas to electric heating. Whether you’re looking for the most efficient space heating or wondering whether personal heating could work for you (plug-in seat warmers anyone?), we present the choices and consider the pros and cons. As one of our case studies demonstrates, the more you can do to improve the thermal efficiency of your home, the less you’ll need to spend on heating. So don’t just focus on the heater—think insulation, draught proofing and, when designing a new home, how to make passive solar design work for you.

There’s much more besides. Two urban innovators are growing more food than you’d expect on a backyard block, one as a business and one to feed their family: it’s inspiring to see how they’ve gone about it and just what’s possible.

In our story on the emissions from unconventional gas production, it’s shocking to see the extent that ‘fracking’ has grown over the last few years, with tens of thousands more wells planned. We look at what this means for greenhouse gas emissions from the wells themselves; not a good news story.

We also take a ride on the ‘solarcoaster’, with one person’s experience of solar upgrades over 15 years—next issue, we plan to look at upgrades in more detail for those with older systems. Plus, the good news on electric vehicles is changing so fast that we had to delay our market update submission until the last minute to avoid seeming out of date.

Enjoy and let us know your feedback. Our reader survey is staying open a couple more weeks so there’s still time to give us your input: www.renew.org.au/readersurvey.

Robyn Deed
ReNew Editor

ATA CEO’s Report

As the southern states head into winter, our attention turns to how to keep our homes warm. Here at the ATA, we always advocate for making our buildings more energy-efficient with well-insulated and sealed homes as the first step.

But when looking at active heating systems, ReNew readers will be pleased to see that we have released our full report on Household Fuel Choice in the National Electricity Market. The updated research found households will be between $9000 to $16,000 better off over 10 years if they establish their new home as all-electric with a five kilowatt solar system, rather than gas-electric with no solar.

There is just no reason economically for new homes to be built with both electricity and gas. This has been the case for many years in Australia’s north, but it’s now also clearly the case in colder climates like Victoria and Tasmania. Heat pump hot water and split system air conditioning systems are far more efficient than gas appliances and solar systems are cheaper than ever.

The benefits are not only for the hip-pocket; this approach also ensures that our homes are healthy and adequately warm during the colder months. This is especially important for the elderly and other people at risk due to their homes not being kept at a comfortable temperature.

At the ATA we are proud to be able to conduct and promote our independent research to ensure that we do not invest in new gas infrastructure, which would lock households into higher energy costs and not assist in our pathway to a 100% renewable electricity grid.
CEO, ATA

You can purchase ReNew 144 from the ATA webshop.

Hue kit

Houses that think

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Smart home technology is touted as the way of the future, helping to make life easier while reducing energy use. But is that really the case? Lance Turner investigates.

In the last few years there has been ever-escalating enthusiasm for internet-connected appliances and devices, in the belief that connecting devices to the rest of the world can make life better for householders. However, there are both pros and cons of making your house smarter, and there are varying degrees of ‘smart’, so what level of automation should you be aiming for?

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What is a smart home?
A smart home can be defined as one that contains one or more devices that collect data, store that data, either locally or in the ‘cloud’ (on an online server), and can act on that data to make decisions as to what they should do. The motivation behind adding smart devices is usually to improve comfort levels, safety and security of a home, and may also be to help an occupant with a disability.

Most likely, your home probably already contains at least one smart device, whether you realise it or not. For example, TVs usually have some level of network connectivity and many collect data, or can be programmed to. Other typical smart devices can be seen in List 1.

What are smart devices?
So what exactly makes a device ‘smart’? Firstly, as mentioned, it will need network connectivity. This may be via common wi-fi or wired ethernet, which allow it to connect to your existing home network directly, or it may be via one of a number of other protocols (see List 3). If the device uses one of these other protocols, then it will need to connect to an intermediate device, known as a hub or controller (see List 2). This hub then allows it to connect to the home network, and hence other devices in that network, as well as communicate with the wider internet.

Smart devices are usually also able to collect data and store it, either locally in the network or on a cloud server. They can usually also make decisions based on that data. For example, a smart window opener might close windows if it detects rain.

Smart devices can often also use external data sources to make decisions. For example, a smart irrigation controller, such as the Hydrawise unit, might use weather data from a weather service to decide if it should water the garden or not.

Many smart devices can also communicate with other smart devices in their own home network. For example, a smart smoke alarm, such as the Nest Protect unit, can cause a Nest camera to send you a photo when the alarm is triggered.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Image courtesy Condon Scott Architects, Photography Simon Larkin.

A clever little home

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Contrary to many people’s experience, Will Croxford and his wife have found that smart tech has made their house simpler and cheaper to run. He explains the features they use.

You might have seen our tiny house on the cover of the latest issue of Sanctuary (ReNew’s sister magazine on sustainable design). After years of research and planning, we built and then moved in on 1 August 2017. Our house has a footprint of only 30 m2, but it feels well designed and spacious. It is built using SIPs (structural insulated panels) for the floor, walls and roof, and is close to Passive House standard. We also incorporated smart technology which helps reduce our energy bills, light up the house and keep us warm in winter. Contrary to many people’s experience with smart house tech, our life is simpler because of it. This is how we do it.

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Aiming for ‘best in class’
One way to get a ‘smart home’ is to purchase a single integrated system. Such systems are usually installed by a professional and are often simple to use and robust. Another way, which is what we opted for, is to use a DIY approach with separate systems and multiple apps. In a DIY system, things aren’t always simple and there may be limited integration between apps.

Even though it’s not as a simple, the DIY approach suited us. I’m a tech person who loves tweaking settings and working with programs that I feel are the best. I like to think of this as a ‘best in class’ approach. For example, our smart lighting is the Philips Hue system because we think it’s the best in class. Obviously some will disagree; maybe ‘best in class’ is better described as ‘best for us’.

A downside with ‘best in class’ is that the many and varied systems used may be proprietary and hard to integrate together. But there are always ways around these problems.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Sensors

A mania for monitoring

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When you build a high-performance house, you want to know that it’s performing as expected. Cameron Munro has monitoring in place to do that—and he’s producing some lovely graphs in the process!

We moved into our renovated home in Melbourne in November 2016, having undertaken an extensive renovation with a focus on massively improving the energy efficiency of the building fabric (for more, see ‘All-electric and hydronic’ in ReNew 141).

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Our approach was driven by a desire to produce a comfortable home no matter how hot or cold it was outside and to reduce our operating costs to as close to zero as possible. To do this we used the Passive House approach, a scientific method incorporating extensive modelling and verification. This required very high levels of insulation (including high-performance windows), avoidance of thermal bridges and a building wrap that reduces the air infiltration to about 1/15th that of a normal home. We also opted to remove the gas service; instead, we use heat pumps to provide hot water and space heating. We also installed a 6.4 kW solar PV system.

Having gone to what is, by Australian standards, extreme lengths to improve the thermal performance of our home, we were keen to understand exactly how well it performed against our expectations and modelling. Knowledge is power—we want to be able to run our home in the most energy-efficient way and to do this we need to have a good understanding of how it functions. Thus we decided to install monitoring that is well beyond the norm.

The big picture
First up, we’ve kept track of our electricity bills. Over the most recent 12 months we have exported 20% more power to the grid than we have consumed and our net electricity bill was $627, of which two-thirds was the fixed supply charge. This bill includes cooking, hot water, heating and cooling as well as our plug-in hybrid car. The car accounts for about a third of our electricity consumption and this bill of $627 contributed to driving around 9000 km over the year in all-electric mode. If we were to exclude the car we’d have earned about $520 over the year.

Over the 12 months we exported 6071 kWh to the grid and imported 5135 kWh. Our consumption of around 19 kWh/day is high compared to many households, but bear in mind that about 7 kWh/day is used by the car, 2.5 kWh/day for hot water and in winter we’re using about 8–15 kWh/day for heating. Figure 8 shows our month-by-month consumption and export.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Image: igorr1 via iStock

Beat the winter chills: A guide to electric heating options

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As we head into the colder months, thoughts turn to staying warm. What’s the best electric heating system for you? Lance Turner looks at the options, and their pros and cons.

In past issues of ReNew we have focused on what are arguably the two most popular energy-efficient heating options—reverse-cycle air conditioning and hydronic heating. Both have advantages and disadvantages, and both suit some people, house designs and climates better than others, so which is best? Are there other options that should be explored? When it comes to heating, there are lots of questions to answer, and making the right choices is important for a comfortable, warm home with low running costs and low environmental impact.

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Not gas
Firstly, we should note that we are not considering gas heating. Gas is a fossil fuel and there is simply no way to run gas appliances without greenhouse gas emissions. On the other hand, while electricity is in part generated by coal and other fossil fuels, it doesn’t have to be—you can purchase 100% GreenPower or install a solar power system large enough to cover your needs throughout the year and effectively be greenhouse neutral.

The economics of gas heating also no longer stack up in almost all cases. See www.bit.ly/2Hrfebe for the ATA’s research report on this subject.

Now that is out of the way, what are the electric heating options available? Firstly, we will look at the two technologies we have covered previously which tend to be used for space (whole-of-house) heating—reverse-cycle air conditioning and hydronic heating, then we will look at resistive electric heaters, solar air heaters and other heating considerations.

Reverse-cycle air conditioners
Reverse-cycle air conditioners work by compressing a gas, called a refrigerant, which then transfers heat from one place to another. The technology that does this is called a heat pump. Heat pumps are all around us; for example, in your fridge, a heat pump transfers heat from inside the cabinet to outside, which is why the outside of the fridge gets warm. In a reverse-cycle air conditioner, the transfer can go either way, hence the name. In winter, heat is taken from outside and dumped inside, and in summer the opposite occurs.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

mde

Heating people, not spaces

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How much energy can you save by heating yourself instead of your home? Will you be as comfortable? Dave Southgate describes his personal heating experiment.

In late 2012 we moved into a fairly normal, five-year-old, four-bedroom home in the Canberra suburbs. As with many Canberra houses, it was a ‘gas house’, using gas for heating, hot water and cooking. Around this time, frustrated by the lack of government progress on climate change, we decided that we would set out to become a fossil fuel free family.

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Getting off gas was clearly fundamental to our plans. More than half of our gas use in 2013 went into our gas ducted central heating—about 6000 kWh (21,600 MJ) over the year.

When we started out on our household energy transition, I envisaged that we would be using heat pumps to replace our gas heating (that’s what everyone else seemed to be doing!), but my wife, Donna, had other ideas. She said that heat pumps didn’t make her feel warm, so we began to search for alternative low energy ways to heat our house. It’s a long story which I’ve written about elsewhere, but we started by installing far infrared (FIR) heating panels. The main photo shows one of two FIR panels which we installed on the ceiling in our living/dining area.

Moving away from space heating…
The FIR panels produce a wonderful radiant heat and I was happy that my wife had diverted us onto a different path. However, when we first installed the panels we simply used them as space heaters and controlled the room air temperature using a thermostat. It didn’t take us too long (but probably longer than it should have) to work out that this was not very smart. When we were sitting under the panels the temperature of the air in the room had virtually no influence on how warm we felt. Our feeling of thermal comfort came from the direct radiant heat from the panels, not from the heat in the ambient air. Why heat all the air in the room when we didn’t need to? Consequently, we changed our heating habits: we only turned on an FIR panel when we were sitting under it and no longer worried about the room air temperature; the thermostat became redundant. This gave us some serious energy savings with no loss of thermal comfort.

This simple chain of events totally changed the way I now think about heating. I came to the realisation that what is important in heating is not how warm the air in a house is, but, rather, how warm the occupants feel! I quickly adopted the philosophy ‘heat people, not spaces’.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

IMG_3269

Heating case study: Converting gas to heat pump hydronic

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This 1908 weatherboard Edwardian in Melbourne has been renovated, extended and insulated—and is making the switch to all-electric, powered by solar PV and 100% GreenPower. In a project completed in November 2017, the owners replaced the gas boiler on their existing hydronic heating system with an electric heat pump, while retaining the original 25-year-old radiators.

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Owner Peter Hormann says they did a lot of work to check whether a heat pump system would enable the 25-year-old radiators to deliver sufficient heat for their winter heating requirements. An important consideration is the lower operating temperatures of a heat pump system which is most efficient up to 55 °C (though can run up to 60 °C or 65 °C) compared to 70 °C from a gas hydronic boiler.

While working out their upgrade options, they limited their old gas boiler to 55 °C through two Melbourne winters to test the existing radiator effectiveness at lower system operating temperatures. “We found that with the lower radiator temperatures the room heating was more gradual and took an extra 30 minutes to bring the house up from a 17 °C standby temperature to our 21 °C ‘comfort’ temperature,” says Peter. To compensate, their household thermostat was programmed for an earlier start in the morning and late afternoon heating periods.

Chris Siddons from Siddons Solar Hydronics (who installed the new system) says that there are some advantages to having a lower water temperature in a hydronic system: “The plumbing fittings have a longer life at lower temperatures, and the radiators are a safer temperature for toddlers and babies.”

Another approach used with heat pumps is to use larger radiators, but Peter was keen to use the existing radiators, which, despite their age, were in good condition.

Read the full case study, plus several more, in ReNew 144.

Efficiently owner built

Efficiently owner-built: A warming tale

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Location, communication and efficiency are three key parts of this owner-build—along with an innovative hydronic heating and cooling system. Cathryn Hamilton describes the process and results for her house in Adelaide.

Owner building is all about communication. Well, at least for us it was, as we were project-managing owner-builders, rather than actual builders. Our main tasks were finding good tradespeople and coordinating them. It was great to be in control of the project, but it was also hard at times, and mistakes were made. But we love the end result and the house works exactly as we’d hoped.

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What did we hope for? Our house building project began when my husband John and I became empty nesters and realised our six-bedroom home at the time would be much better used by a larger family. We also wanted to live closer to our jobs, to avoid long travel times and the consequent fuel use and transport footprint. But perhaps most importantly, we’d also spent time in the UK and Europe and seen just how efficient buildings could be, compared to our draughty, poorly insulated, single-glazed home.

We quickly realised we’d need to build rather than buy to get what we wanted at that time in Adelaide. In 2010, we found a 400 m2 corner plot, facing north-east, in a spot convenient for both our jobs, which we snapped up.

Soon after, we got the opportunity to participate in a university project. Architecture and construction student teams designed a home to meet our requirements, working with a budget of $350,000. Although the student designs didn’t quite fit the bill, it was a helpful exercise in working out what we really wanted—and in realising that our budget might need to be higher. The build ended up costing us almost double that original budget, due partly to the new technology we employed and the build quality we wanted.

A design for energy efficiency
The design process began in earnest in April 2011, when we discussed our plans with architect John Maitland from Energy Architecture. We’d met John previously when he opened his house on Sustainable House Day [Ed note: In a nice twist, Cathryn’s house opened in 2017 and is opening again at this year’s event on 16 September; see www.sustainablehouseday.com].

We’d liked John’s ideas about appropriate orientation and passive heating/cooling, using thermal mass combined with a hydronic system to maintain stable temperatures.

Our brief to him was for an energy-efficient home which would capture as much rainwater as possible for use in the home; the latter was particularly important to us in Adelaide’s dry climate. We also wanted a home that could age with us. We wanted wider doorways and ramps, and a ground floor that allowed for all daily activities (we needed a partial second storey given the small footprint).

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Backyard_farming

The farmer next door

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On a standard surburban block in Melbourne, Simeon Hanscamp is growing enough food to provide his local community with vegie boxes—and himself with an income. Anna Cumming visited him to find out what it takes to be a successful backyard farmer.

Backyard fruit and vegie gardening is enduringly popular in Australia; one 2014 study found that 52% of Australian households reported growing at least some of their own food at home. Most of us—especially those who live in urban areas—stick to a few herbs and some tomatoes, or at most a handful of fruit trees and a productive vegie patch. But with a bit of determination and a suitable site, the potential is there to scale food production up to ‘backyard farming’.

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One young entrepreneur in Melbourne has done just that. Both front and back yards of the rental house Simeon Hanscamp shares with two housemates in West Heidelberg, 10 kilometres north-east of the city centre, are laid out in neat, regular-sized garden beds, in which he grows greens and other vegetables. “I have about 220 square metres of growing space, and it produces $200 to $400 worth of food per week, depending on the season,” says Simeon. He sells it to neighbours via a ‘farm gate’ box at the front of the property, and through a vegie box scheme: his subscribers—15 to 20 local families—either collect their weekly boxes from the house, or pay a little extra for bike delivery. Recently, he’s also started attending the weekly farmers’ market at Melbourne University.

Getting started as a backyard farmer
Simeon’s backyard farm is the result of careful research and planning. He got the gardening ‘bug’ when he was involved in starting up a compost heap during his gap year; a few years later he spent time working at Transition Farm, a market garden on the Mornington Peninsula. “It was the best food I ever ate,” he remembers, “and I developed more of an interest in soil biology and so on.”

He also discovered ‘community supported agriculture’ (CSA). “Transition Farm’s CSA program means that around 100 families commit up front to buying weekly food boxes. The farm has a bit more financial security that way and planning production is easier. Typically recipients are also more involved in the story of where their food comes from.”

Inspired to become a farmer, Simeon spent three and a half years researching and learning, and developing his own business idea. “I wanted to be near family and also my partner’s city workplace, so the big question for me was how do I juggle proximity to the city with farming? The answer was urban farming.”

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Solarcoaster

On the solarcoaster: Fifteen years, five solar systems

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Jeff Knowles is a self-confessed solar enthusiast, and his rooftop bears that out with a higher-than-average number of solar upgrades that reflect changing installation standards. He explains the motivations for each iteration here—and the next chapter to come!

My partner Chrissy and I live in a purpose-built passive solar home in Jerrabomberra, NSW, near Queanbeyan and just over the border from Canberra. When you see that Canberra has had a run of 12 °C days, you might be tempted to think “ugh, that’s cold!”—mostly, though, we get a lot of sun with that 12 degrees and, surprisingly, winter can be a time when we generate more per day than Sydney or Brisbane using a similar-sized PV array.

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Being a solar enthusiast, I have always been interested in how much we can generate on our roof. Our PV system has been an ongoing ‘project’ as the technology and our knowledge has improved. In fact, since 2003, we have had five iterations of our solar system—Solace #1 to Solace #5—using a variety of panels, inverters and optimisers—perhaps something of a record!

Solace #1: 2003
Solace #1 in 2003 used 12 x 150 W BP panels mounted almost flat on the roof. The installer hailed from Victoria and came up for the two-day install (as there were no local installers in the ACT in 2003, and the Victorian installer offered the best price and timeframe). The system was sized on paper—we calculated energy use in our all-electric home and what a panel could produce in a year in our region­—thereby arriving at 12 panels. It cost $20,000, before the $8000 government grant.

The system failed in its aim to produce as much as we used in a year, partly because of the way we installed it, with a long piece of steel to mount the panels. The steel got really hot in summer, and so did the panels. Hot panels are less efficient; keeping panels cool is ideal for maximum production of DC electricity. We finished up having to move them because, ironically, while the install was designed to produce the most in summer (they were only 12 degrees to horizontal), they were getting too hot to do so.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

QLD gas field

Greenhouse gas footprint

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Do you want to know the greenhouse footprint of Australian gas? Tim Forcey says, “how would we know?”—because no one is keeping track.

Energy and environmental planners like to do calculations and compare alternatives. Questions researchers might explore include: Which is cleaner: electricity made from coal or gas or renewables? What is the greenest way to heat your home, have a shower or cook spaghetti?

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But there is a problem when it comes to evaluating the greenness of gas. Such comparisons need to be built on data. And, unfortunately, as we found recently in research at the University of Melbourne, although Australia may produce more fossil gas than nearly every other country, when it comes to digging up information around the greenhouse footprint of Australian gas, particularly unconventional gas, data is in short supply.

The greenness of gas depends significantly on how much is released into the earth’s atmosphere. Fossil gas predominantly consists of methane which is a powerful greenhouse gas—with worse climate impacts than carbon dioxide (see box). Our research found that if just 3% of the produced gas is released into the atmosphere, the climate-change impact of this released methane is equivalent to or worse than the climate impact of burning (and thereby converting to carbon dioxide) the other 97%.

It is critical, therefore, that we know how much gas is released during production and other stages.

Unconventional vs conventional gas
We’ve all heard of fracking and coal seam gas, but it can be easy to miss just how much these ‘unconventional’ gas production methods have escalated in recent years in Australia. There is some real (measured) data on emissions from conventional gas extraction, but these measurements can’t simply be applied to unconventional gas.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Image: Jaguar UK

Electric vehicle update: The end of the ICE age?

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Is the end of the ICE (vehicle) age looming? Amid a flurry of announcements from car manufacturers and governments around the world, Bryce Gaton surveys the significant shifts away from ICE vehicles and towards electric.

Change is afoot in the electric vehicle (EV) world. More and more EV developments are being reported in mainstream media, including further markers of the looming end of the ICE age! In this case, ICE equals internal combustion engine, or the standard petrol or diesel car. So let’s look at what’s been happening so far in 2018.

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Electric vehicle sales
EV sales in the first quarter of 2018 hit 312,400 worldwide, 59% higher than for the same quarter in 2017. Of these sales, 66% were pure EVs (battery-only) and 34% were plug-in hybrid EVs (EVs with a plug-in rechargeable battery and an ICE engine).

Even in Australia, sales of EVs were reportedly up 132% for the quarter—albeit from a very low base in 2017 when few EVs were available here. Australian EV sales currently sit at around 1000 annually, excluding Tesla sales (Tesla doesn’t provide sales data to VFACTS, the private body collating Australian car sales data), which is less than 0.1% of annual new car sales.

Planning for charging stations
In Australia, one hurdle in the way of significant EV sales has been the lack of public charging infrastructure. However, in a significant shift, almost all Australian states and some businesses are addressing this.

Queensland now has what it claims as the “world’s longest electric vehicle super highway in a single state”, after recently completing the first stage of a fast charging network to allow electric vehicles to travel from the Gold Coast to Cairns and inland from Brisbane to Toowoomba (see further info at www.bit.ly/2xHTcBr).

For businesses, councils or other groups interested in installing charging stations, the Queensland government has also recently released a Practice Note (www.bit.ly/2xJ7Qs5) outlining key principles for planning electric vehicle charging to “support the selection of the right type of infrastructure at the right location.”

The document includes a detailed introduction covering EV charging basics, plus a practical guide to choosing the most appropriate charger type for a proposed site and tips on cost recovery.

Although the document is Queensland-specific, it makes a useful starting point for any community group or local chamber of commerce that is beginning their journey in advocating for, planning or installing EV charging infrastructure.

Read the full article in ReNew 144.

Pumped Hydro Site - Photo ABC

Pears Report: On purpose

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Underlying the absurd debate about the future of Liddell power station is an important issue with broad implications: the repurposing of existing sites.

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It makes economic, social and environmental sense to make the best use of existing assets during times of change. We have redeveloped old dockland areas for urban development and more productive commercial activity. We are increasingly making use of roofs to support solar energy systems. So why not repurpose old mining, industrial and electricity generation sites for more productive and sustainable activities?

The Whyalla steel plant is being repurposed. It has high-capacity power lines and a great solar resource, so energy storage and solar energy production make sense. It has no nearby energy generation competitors. It has a local skilled workforce and a working industrial plant to produce ‘green’ steel that could sell at a premium. And a state government that is desperate to see it succeed.

In Queensland, the Kidston solar and storage project uses water storage and existing transmission lines at a closed mining site that is a long way from major generators. It is well located to help stabilise the regional electricity grid. Using the site for pumped hydro storage could reduce the costs of pollution management and rehabilitation. It also has an excellent solar resource. And the project could revitalise the local community.

If I owned the Liddell site, I would not sell it off. Indeed, a future-focused NSW government that was not captured by the privatisation ideology would not have sold it to AGL a few years ago. Today, AGL has very good reasons not to sell this valuable asset.

From an energy perspective, the site has access to high capacity powerlines, generators that can be modified to provide grid support, space for batteries and pumped hydro potential. Modular, flexible gas generators can be located nearby. It has a skilled local workforce keen for jobs, with a union that sees a clean energy future as inevitable. Also, Liddell is enmeshed with the nearby Bayswater power station, also owned by AGL. A separate owner would create business demarcation challenges.

Sale of Liddell would also raise the issue of who should pay for rehabilitation and decommissioning costing hundreds of millions of dollars. By keeping the site, AGL can defer and manage those costs.

From a business perspective, why would you sell an asset to a competitor who was likely to gain subsidies from a national government desperate to see the plant continue to operate until 2025, when its pet Snowy 2.0 pumped hydro project is expected to power up?

From a political perspective, the government argues that it wants clunky old Liddell to continue to operate. If it wanted competition, it would be pleased that AGL has provided seven years’ notice of closure so that other competitors can invest to fill the gap. Trying to force AGL to continue its operation, sell it or commit to ‘fill the gap’ undermines competition.

It seems to me that the government wants Liddell’s output to lock out other investment in energy supply until Snowy 2.0 begins operations around 2025. Without this, other energy options will come on stream after Liddell’s 2022 closure, undermining the financial viability of Snowy 2.0. This would be embarrassing to the Coalition and expensive for taxpayers: Snowy 2.0 is being built with taxpayer money. Snowy hydro will fund the project by not paying dividends to the government. So instead of visible subsidy payments, an invisible non-payment of dividends will cost the same, but be less likely to be noticed by voters.

These games around Liddell seem intended to placate a small group within the Coalition party room and prop up the economics of our prime minister’s ‘thought bubble’ project. Not very worthy policy goals.

Disruption spreading from energy supply to energy efficiency industries
It’s obvious to everyone that the traditional energy supply industries are being disrupted by rapidly changing technologies and business models. Economics and climate change are key drivers.

But few look at the disruptive trends creeping up on the energy efficiency industry. Two interesting examples are energy auditing and sub-metering, where extra meters are used to monitor parts of a site, processes, specific equipment or appliances to help identify inefficiencies, faults or to help optimise operation. Sub-metering is expensive and often difficult. Many businesses are reluctant to invest in it because it has no direct financial return: it just provides information. That information is needed to identify energy consumption problems and make informed decisions, but that value seems to be beyond the grasp of many business decision-makers.

Even when a site has an energy data system, it often provides unintelligible data or the wrong data. The data may not be easily accessed by others: the supplier of the data system can use data format incompatibilities to maintain privileged status and profit. And historical data that is important for benchmarking may be deleted.

Recent developments in data analytics, machine learning, cheaper and better sensors and smart people, often from outside the traditional energy sectors, are changing all that.

The impact of these innovations flows through to energy auditing, too. Energy audits are costly, and often have limited impact for too many reasons to go into here. New data analysis techniques can extract real-time information on operation of individual items of equipment from central meters. They can combine multiple data sources to provide ‘actionable advice’ in an accessible and meaningful form.

We are beginning to see a new generation of energy/business analysts who can advise a business or household on a range of issues that are worth much more to them than just how to save energy. They can identify emerging equipment failures to avoid costly plant shutdowns, improve process scheduling, monitor product quality in real-time to identify poor handling practices and help avoid oversizing of new equipment. All the while saving a lot of energy.

This revolution is just one element of a much broader industrial transformation that will open up many opportunities, such as modular, relocatable micro-factories, replacing gas and other fuels with renewable electricity, and 3D printing (additive manufacturing). We will see transfer of traditionally ‘industrial’ activity upstream to farms, mines and sources of reprocessable waste, and downstream to shops and offices. Some describe this as ‘Industry 4.0’. Others call it ‘smart manufacturing’. But it is a blurring of production across the whole economy. This offers potential to reinvigorate rural economies, shift power from big companies and drive ‘closed loop’ production and virtualisation. I’m looking forward to it.

The work of the Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity (www.a2ep.org.au), Beyond Zero Emissions, Startupbootcamp and many others is underpinning a demand-side energy, environmental, economic and social revolution. Hold onto your hats!

Appliance energy efficiency
Not many people are aware of the recent review of the legislation covering appliance and equipment efficiency policy (see www.bit.ly/2JqdzHJ).

Yet this is a critically important area relevant to energy use, management of peak energy demand, energy costs, environmental impacts and social policy. The consultation document notes that Greenhouse and Energy Minimum Standards (GEMS) regulations (that set minimum energy performance and labelling standards for appliances) “save the average Australian household between $140 and $220 on their electricity bill each year … In 2016, the net savings of GEMS regulations to the Australian economy was in the range of $870 million to $1.58 billion, with greenhouse gas emissions savings of between 4.5 and 6.9 million tonnes. That is the equivalent of half of Queensland’s annual household emissions.“

Superficially, this sounds like a great result. But it actually reflects serious policy failure, because we could be doing so much more. If we drove appliance policy much harder, with higher standards, incentives and stronger action to replace inefficient existing appliances, it would still be very cost-effective and we could cut millions more tonnes of carbon emissions per year. And do this a lot cheaper than the emission reduction fund which costs $10 to $15 per tonne of carbon emissions abated; energy efficiency measures, on the other hand, have a negative cost, as low as minus $118 per tonne, as the measures are cost-effective in their own right.

Appliance efficiency has lacked political commitment and resources. Its progress has suffered from restrictions placed on new regulation by the Abbott government. The focus on mandatory standards and energy labels is very narrow. It fails to address inefficient and faulty existing appliances, and to include smart monitoring to identify faults during operation. Information and standards for commercial and industrial equipment are seriously inadequate. Our mandatory standards are typically weak.

I made a detailed submission to the review in March, but it is still not clear when the review report will be published. The submissions have been published on the Department of Energy and Environment website at www.bit.ly/2ljuL3X.
A key recommendation in my submission was for the “establishment of ongoing funded consumer representation to engage in development, operation and evaluation of the GEMS program, possibly within Energy Consumers Australia.”
Consumers need a much stronger voice, sufficient resources to make an effective input and stability of resourcing to provide input to long-running processes. S

Alan Pears, AM, is one of Australia’s best-regarded sustainability experts. He is a Senior Industry Fellow at RMIT University, advises a number of industry and community organisations and works as a consultant. He writes a column in each issue of ReNew: you can buy an e-book of Alan’s columns from 1997 to 2016 at shop.ata.org.au.

See Alan Pears’ submission to the Department of the Environment and Energy GEMS review here.

Read more articles in ReNew 144.

Biome plastic free

Product profile: Go plastic-free

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With the world slowly waking up to the environmental disaster that is petroleum-based plastics, more non-plastic options for all kinds of common household items are becoming more readily available.

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Biome, one of Australia’s original eco-stores, has an entire section dedicated purely to alternative, long-lasting products that are completely plastic-free.

Products include glass, stainless steel and bamboo drinking straws; glass and stainless steel kitchen containers, jars and utensils; bamboo and wood toothbrushes, hair and scrubbing brushes; stainless steel and wood clothes pegs; fabric/beeswax reusable food wrap sheets; natural fibre baskets and bags; unwrapped or paper-wrapped personal care products; wood and bamboo toys; stainless steel and glass water bottles and coffee cups; the Solidteknics range of cookware; even organic and biodegradable hair scrunchies—the list is huge, with almost 600 plastic-free products.

While many of the products will cost more than their plastic equivalents from the local supermarket, they are free from petrochemicals and are either environmentally benign or biodegradable.

For more information and to buy, contact Biome, ph: 1300 301 767, shop@biome.com.au, www.biome.com.au/911-plastic-free-life

Read more product profiles in ReNew 144.

Q&A: Slab insulation

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Q

I’m planning to build a small house in Castlemaine, with a concrete slab area of 60 m2 and a perimeter of 38.3 m—giving a perimeter:area ratio of 0.64. The house will be oriented to get good solar access onto the slab during winter and will be shaded in summer. However, I’ve read that the higher the perimeter:area ratio is, the less the thermal resistance of the slab. Therefore, my question is, given the high perimeter:area ratio for my planned build, is there any point in having the slab at all? And would it actually provide much additional benefit to the alternative—an insulated wooden floor?

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Also, I totally get the logic to insulate under the slab in terms of winter and retaining heat. But in summer, would the fact that the slab is not in contact with the ground work against me, in that it could stay too warm in the house?
—Amy Butcher, VIC

A

Concrete does not have great thermal resistance i.e. it is a poor insulator. It does have great thermal mass though. In this situation you will gain/lose more heat at the edges due to the greater perimeter:area ratio. Insulating the slab edge will dramatically reduce this heat loss. See www.bit.ly/2sxdCqG for more information.

From what I know of your climate I would insulate underneath the slab as well. You will pay a penalty in summer (but if well-shaded and insulated this should be minimal) and get a greater gain in winter.

As your home is going to be relatively small, having a well-insulated envelope on all six sides (roof, walls and under and around the slab) will make it easier to control the indoor environment; if you do need to add or remove heat, it will be a minimal amount. The thermal mass of your slab will stabilise temperatures and add to comfort.

A timber floor can work but the lack of thermal mass will give you greater temperature fluctuations. If your site is quite flat then the underside of your timber floor structure will need to be 400 mm above ground i.e. floor level would be 650+ mm. This is for termite inspections.
—Andy Marlow, Envirotecture

Read more Q&A in ReNew 144.

Austpost eDV

News: Postal deliveries going electric

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As part of its commitment to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 25% off 2000 levels by 2020, Australia Post is starting to make the move to using electric delivery vehicles (eDVs). Since March last year the company has been trialling a Swiss-made three-wheeled electric scooter; there are now more than 100 delivering mail around the country, in addition to over 1000 electric bikes.

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In addition to being battery powered, the eDVs offer two big advantages over a regular postie motorbike: they can carry three times more letters and parcels, and they can be left unattended as the cargo compartments automatically lock when the vehicle is switched off.
Australia Post is also investing in solar to help power its operations renewably, and it’s one of 14 consortium members behind the ground-breaking Melbourne Renewable Energy Project, contracted to buy a third of the projected output of the Crowlands wind farm near Ararat.
www.bit.ly/2JDyIey, www.bit.ly/2y41K5L