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ReNew 140 editorial: It’s electrifying – the benefits of changing fuels

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AS ONE of our case studies says, many living in the colder parts of Australia have long assumed that winter equals high energy bills (often gas) for heating. But what if that association could be changed, with benefits for both the hip pocket and the environment?


Over the last few years, the ATA, ReNew’s not-for-profit publisher, has been promoting a shift to efficient electric appliances for the three major energy users in the home— heating/cooling, hot water and cooking—with the important message that in many cases this shift will be both cheaper for the householder and better for the environment. It’s a message that is resonating with many committed to making sustainable changes at home.

Another of our case studies makes the point that part of the reason for the shift is the tremendously improved effectiveness of new state-of-the-art efficient electric options; how much better is a heat pump for heating over an old electric bar heater, or the responsiveness of an induction cooktop over the old electric coil cooktops (I still remember the excitement at the covered coils on my parents’ new stove in the 1980s!).

Apart from case studies, the ATA revisits its modelling of the economics of going all-electric, including how having solar panels helps in the financial equation. We also answer some commonly asked questions: how do you disconnect from the gas network; when do you need to start thinking about three-phase or a higher amperage power connection; and can a keen cook be wooed away from cooking with gas, even if they are ‘wokstars’ (short answer: yes)?

There’s much more in the issue besides. Staying warm is not just a heater choice— house design, draughts and insulation all need to be addressed. Our buyers guide looks at insulation—what’s available and where it’s needed—along with installation case studies and the warming results. Plus we look at window coverings, including the beauty of high-performing honeycomb blinds adopted in many of our case studies.

Designing with structural insulated panels (SIPs) also gets highlighted this issue, with two houses using this prefab construction approach to produce well-sealed, high-performing homes. These projects suggest a shift towards thinking about air tightness, with several houses also using blower door tests to find out just how sealed they are.

We also cover one of the most inspiring outcomes of the Community Energy Congress, held in March this year. With many representatives from Australian and other First Nations communities, out of the congress came the formation of an alliance of First Nations peoples seeking a renewables pathway to energy justice for their often remote and poorly served communities.

Stop Press! The ATA has just won not one, but two awards from the United Nations Association of Australia, one for climate change leadership and one for Sustainable House Day’s role in education and engagement. Great stuff

Robyn Deed
ReNew Editor

ATA CEO’s Report

THOUGH very disappointing, it came as no surprise to many that Donald Trump followed through on his election promise and pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change. The USA joins Syria and Nicaragua as the only UN member countries not to sign the agreement.

Donald Trump’s move seems to have only strengthened the commitment of others to take the lead on action on climate change. The momentum for a low-emissions future grows apace with the price of renewable energy continuing to fall—it is now cheaper to develop solar and wind energy than new coal-fired power stations in most countries.

The stories in this issue of ReNew show the transition is happening already, and communities and the market are leading the way. Now we need government on board to ensure it is fair and equitable and that everyone is brought along on the journey.

At the ATA we continue to provide independent advice to help renters, apartment dwellers and disadvantaged communities. Working with our partners in the social sector we advocate for reform of the energy market to ensure it is of benefit to consumers as well as the planet. Delivering on-the-ground projects in East Timor and to community groups across Australia, we put knowledge into action for a fair and just renewable future.

The ATA cannot solve climate change—no one organisation can—but we can and do empower people like you to take responsible and effective action to reduce Australia’s, and the world’s, carbon footprint.

If you would like to support the work of the ATA, make a tax-deductible donation by the end of the financial year on 30 June. Go to or call 03 9639 1500.

Donna Luckman

You can purchase ReNew 140 from the ATA webshop.

An all-electric home can reduce your bills and ‘green’ your energy use, particularly if you run your house from the sun. And, as the grid gets greener, so too does your house. The roof of this Hawthorn, Melbourne extension was designed specifically to house the 4.5kW solar array that powers the house. Design by Habitech; read the full profile in Sanctuary 37.

Three steps to all-electric

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Thinking about going all-electric, but unsure what’s involved? Here we present an overview of the steps to going all-electric and where to find more information.

IN THE past, gas was seen as a cheap and clean option for winter heating, hot water and cooking. However, the efficiency of electric appliances has improved dramatically and solar PV has fallen so much in price (and can be used to power those appliances), meaning it can now be cheaper and more environmentally sustainable to go off gas and run an all-electric home.


The ATA first looked at this in 2014 and the modelling results can be found at In summary, the results showed that even when paying grid electricity rates (i.e. without solar PV), for many Australian homes it would be cheaper over 10 years to switch from gas to efficient electric appliances, with appliances replaced as they fail or in some cases even before this. Greater savings can be found when disconnecting completely from the gas network as this eliminates the gas supply charge (costing several hundred dollars a year). The report also highlighted that new homes should not be connected to gas, as doing so would lock in higher energy costs than needed.

Savings will depend on the thermal performance of your home, the electricity price negotiated with your retailer, your gas tariffs and the efficiency of your appliances. The Grattan Institute found that a large home in Melbourne can save $1024 per year by disconnecting from the gas grid:

In addition, by using modern electric appliances, your home can be converted to use 100% renewable energy, whether you generate your own electricity with rooftop solar or purchase 100% GreenPower from your electricity retailer. The ATA’s latest modelling compares gas running costs to electric with solar; see p. 44 for preliminary results.

Three steps to all-electric

There are three main areas where many homes currently use gas: space heating, hot water and cooking (mainly cooktops, but ovens too). To switch to all-electric, there are now efficient options available for these uses. This article summarises the options and points to where to find more information.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

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2017 insulation buyers guide

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Is your home hot in summer and freezing in winter? It probably has little or no insulation. Lance Turner takes a look at how insulation can help.

Download the full buyers guide tables here.


Insulation, like orientation, is often overlooked by householders, perhaps because it’s not on display, hidden as it is in the ceiling, walls or underfloor. You may not be able to see it, but, in most homes, you can feel its presence, or absence. Insulation is key to providing a liveable home when the weather cools down or heats up, without breaking the bank on energy costs.

Insulation works by resisting the flow of heat, slowing down heat loss in winter and heat gains in summer. In a well-insulated home, once the home has been heated to a comfortable level in winter, it will stay warm with far less energy input than an uninsulated or poorly insulated home would require.

The same applies in summer: a properly insulated home will take longer to heat up and, if an air conditioner is used, it will use less energy than one cooling an uninsulated house. One summer-time caveat: any windows that receive direct sunlight need to be shaded, particularly west windows, as insulation can slow the ability of the house to cool down if there are large heat gains from windows.

Heat transfer and insulation
There are three ways that heat is transferred to or from a building: conduction, convection and radiation (and through gaps, of course, but draughtproofing is outside the scope of this guide).
Conduction is the transfer of heat through a substance, in this case the walls, floor and ceiling of a house. The type of insulation used to reduce conductive heat transfer is known as ‘bulk’ insulation.

This is the most common home insulation and may be in the form of fluffy ‘batts’ or ‘blankets’ made of materials such as polyester, glass or mineral wool or sheep’s wool. Bulk insulation may also use a loose-fill material, which is pumped into the roof or wall cavities and sealed with a spray-on cap. All these materials are poor conductors of heat and so reduce the rate of heat flow, provided they are installed correctly.

Convection heat transfer—heat transferred through the circulation of air—is the undoing of many insulation jobs. Circulating air can pass between poorly installed insulation materials and thus transfer heat into or out of the house, vastly reducing the effectiveness of the insulation.

Radiation is a different type of heat transfer. All warm objects radiate heat in the form of infrared radiation. This heat can be reflected back to where it has come from using reflective foil insulation, so that heat loss or gain through radiation is greatly reduced.

Reflective surfaces such as foil don’t just reflect, they also have low emissivity—the ability to emit radiation, or heat in this case. This means heat that has entered the material from the non-reflective side is not emitted from the reflective side easily. Thus, foils work to reduce heat flows in both directions, even if only one side of the material is reflective.

Download the full buyers guide tables here.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

Thermal image post wall insulation

Wall insulation retrofits on trial

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A recent series of trials by Sustainability Victoria has investigated the viability and cost-effectiveness of energy efficiency retrofits. Eva Matthews summarises the overall study and the results from one trial, retrofitting wall insulation.

WHILE residential development (new housing and renovations) continues apace throughout urban Australia and mandatory building standards have been introduced over the last couple of decades to improve energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, there remains a huge pool of older existing housing stock that hasn’t benefitted from these improvements. There have also been few studies to determine the extent of inefficiency in this existing housing, how it might be practically upgraded and how cost-effective it would be to do so. Step in Sustainability Victoria (SV), who commenced a study in 2009 to investigate these information gaps.


Their On-Ground Assessment (OGA) compiled data, based on modelling, from a “reasonably representative” sample of 60 pre-2005 homes in Victoria, with the results published in December 2015 (The Energy Efficiency Upgrade Potential of Existing Victorian Houses; The second phase of the study was to implement energy efficiency upgrades in a selection of houses and to assess costs and savings, householder perceptions and any implementation issues. The results of these trials are also at the above link.

Here we outline the results of the OGA as it relates to wall insulation, focusing on the Cavity Wall Insulation Retrofit Trial, conducted with 15 homes in 2012 and 2013, with results published by SV in January 2016.

Why the focus on wall insulation? Simply, because it is a significant factor in the energy performance of buildings, and millions of older homes don’t have it. Those that do, benefit from a home that is warmer in winter and cooler in summer with reduced need for supplementary heating/cooling due to greater retention of the heat and coolth, fewer draughts, less noise pollution and less condensation on internal walls in winter—the latter inhibiting mould growth which can be a significant health hazard.

Why consider pumped-in wall insulation as the most feasible retrofit option? Unless you’re undertaking a renovation that includes the removal of internal wall linings or one in which weatherboards are to be removed to allow access to the wall cavities from the outside, pumping in wall insulation is the only practical option for existing housing stock.

The OGA found that 95% of the 60 homes in the study had no wall insulation. With 15% to 25% of heat gain/loss being attributed to uninsulated walls, this helps clarify why the average house energy rating of these pre-2005 houses was just 1.81 Stars (significantly lower than the requirement of 5 Stars for post-2005 and 6 Stars for post-2011 homes).

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

SIPs house in Toowoomba

SIPs house in Toowoomba

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Bill and Margaret Curnow’s house in Toowoomba is built using structural insulated panels and is being monitored for heating and cooling energy use by QUT. Dr Wendy Miller reports on the research.

MOST Australian homes are built using timber or steel frames, over which internal and external wall linings and a roof are then added, along with insulation between these ‘skins’. Structural insulated panels (SIPs) present a whole new construction technique: these panels provide the linings, insulation and structural framework all in one unit.


My research team at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has been examining how houses using SIPs are actually performing, in terms of comfort and energy use (i.e. heating and cooling impacts), as well as how the homeowners and their designers and builders have managed this new construction method. This research is part of an Australian Research Council project looking at how innovation and high energy performance can be implemented in Australia’s housing industry. Bill Curnow’s house in Toowoomba is one of four SIPs homes in our research. The other homes are located in South Australia, Victoria and Western Australia. Our project also examines performance of homes that have implemented other innovations.

Temperature performance

Toowoomba is in a warm temperature climate zone that tends to require more heating than cooling in houses. There are six months of the year where the mean minimum temperature is less than 13 °C and only two months where the mean maximum temperature is higher than 27 °C. Despite this, temperature extremes as high as 40 °C and as low as -3 °C (or -16.5 °C with wind chill factor!) can occur. Houses should be able to provide some level of occupant comfort under ‘normal’ as well as extreme weather conditions.

We compared the outdoor temperatures for Toowoomba with temperatures in Bill’s living room. In January 2016, Toowoomba’s outdoor temperatures ranged from 19 °C to 34.2 °C, with a mean of 28 °C. In July, the outdoor temperature ranged from 10.8 °C to 24.5 °C, with a mean of 17.5 °C (interestingly, almost 1 °C hotter than the long-term mean for this month).

Compare this with the much more comfortable range of temperatures in Bill’s living room, as shown in Table 1, with January temperatures largely in the range 20 °C to 26 °C and July temperatures in the range 15 °C to 21 °C. This performance with no additional space heating or cooling suggests that the living room is performing equivalent to an 8.5 to 9 Star rating.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

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Energy justice for First Nations communities

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Aboriginal representatives at the Community Energy Congress have formed an alliance to achieve affordable renewable energy for First Nations communities. Kate Greenwood writes that the ATA is honoured to be part of this process.

ONE OF the highlights of the second Community Energy Congress, held in Melbourne in February this year, was hearing the voices of 13 Aboriginal leaders sharing their personal and powerful stories of what energy justice means to their communities. For some, it is literally a matter of whether they can remain on their ancestral land.


The Aboriginal leaders took to the stage alongside Melina Laboucan-Massimo and Chief Gordon Planes from Canada. In contrast to the enormous energy security challenges faced by Australia’s First Nations communities, in Canada 50% of community energy is owned by First Nations people. Having delegates from Canada inspired everybody and enabled participants to realise the transformational possibilities of community energy.

In special breakout sessions of the congress, those communities negatively affected by resource extraction, dependence on fossil fuels and climate change met to talk about how renewable energy can be part of a story of hope and a catalyst for change, renewing and regenerating their communities. While the bigger goal for Aboriginal communities is self-determination and sustainable nationhood, renewable energy is a means to get there.

One of the most exciting moments of the congress, on day two, was the launch of the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance, formed by Aboriginal representatives in attendance.

Fred Hooper of the Murriwarri Nation highlighted the massive change of direction. “We go to government all the time,” he said. “And yet for 200 years the government has been putting us down. This congress has opened our eyes.” He said the power of people to galvanise and make an immediate impact was clear. “What this congress has given us is a chance to get people in one place and build something for us, in partnership with all of you in the audience today.”

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

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Capital improvements: The path to all-electric

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Switching to electric appliances wasn’t really thought of as economically or environmentally beneficial 10 years ago when Ben Elliston’s household started their efficiency improvements, so theirs has been a gradual path to all-electric. By Robyn Deed.

You could call Ben Elliston’s household a ‘poster child’ for getting off gas, but that’s not how it began. Rather, when they started the process to improve the efficiency of their Canberra home 10 years ago, the family’s mindset was aligned with the message at that time that gas was a cheaper and relatively clean fuel, compared to grid electricity. Ten years on and several ‘face-palm-why-did-we do-that’ moments later, they are now enthusiastically all-electric, with their energy use, operating costs and greenhouse gas emissions all pleasingly reduced—and with some added advantages of their new electric appliances that they didn’t expect.


Looking back, Ben says one of the biggest shifts has been in what a state-of-the-art electric appliance looks like. From the simple electric element appliances of the 80s (the coil cooktop, electric blow heaters and electric element tanks), many of the newer appliances offer not only lower running costs—over both gas and older electric units—but also safety and other benefits. Ben says, “There were lots of advantages we hadn’t anticipated when we shifted to electric appliances. For example, our induction cooktop has smarts to switch off if it senses that a pot is too hot and has run dry; our heat pump air conditioner is also much quieter than our old gas wall heater.”

The other major factor for Ben’s family is environmental. With the ACT now well on the way to 100% renewable electricity by 2020, Ben says, “In 2020, our household will be net zero emissions, which would not be possible if we were still using any gas appliances.”

Read the full article in ReNew 140This article is based on a talk given by Ben Elliston at the ATA’s Canberra branch meeting in April 2017 and an interview with Ben. Click here for slides from the talk.

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Not just window dressing: High-performance curtains and blinds

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Internal window coverings can protect privacy and dramatically improve the thermal function of a house, and if you choose with care, they can help keep you comfortable for years, writes Anna Cumming.

Windows are a complex and interesting part of the building fabric of a house. They admit light, warmth and fresh air; they connect the occupants visually with the outside world; sometimes they frame spectacular views. But from an energy efficiency point of view they are usually the weak link in the building structure. Through windows up to 40% of a home’s heating energy can be lost and up to 87% of its heat gained, according to Your Home. High-performance, double or even triple glazing helps this equation, as does careful consideration of window size, location and orientation. But to ensure the best thermal performance of your home, you’ll need effective window furnishings. Blinds, curtains and shutters can improve a window’s performance, make your home more comfortable and reduce energy costs.


What’s the purpose?

“Internal window furnishings serve a variety of purposes, including light control, privacy, reducing glare, heat reduction and heat retention,” says interior designer Megan Norgate of Brave New Eco. Soft window furnishings can also buffer sound. If you’re building or renovating, consider window treatments as part of the design process, because taking into account the associated requirements and thermal contributions may mean you make different decisions about the extent and location of your glazing.

It’s important to consider the main purpose when choosing window coverings. If minimising heat gain in summer is the main aim, it’s best to keep the sun off the glass in the first place with an external shading device such as an eave or awning (see our article on external shading options in ReNew 138). Semi-transparent blinds or curtains are a good option if privacy or glare reduction is the primary aim; they can be combined with heavier curtains for night-time heat retention.

Thermal performance is where great window coverings really come into their own: “They can act like de-facto double glazing if they are multi-layered and tight fitting to the window,” says designer Dick Clarke of Envirotecture. Snugly fitted and insulative blinds and curtains trap a layer of still air next to the window, reducing transfer of heat from the room to the window and thus outside. They also provide a feeling of cosiness: “If you are sitting in a warm room at night between an uncovered window and your heating source it is likely you will feel a chill, partly because of the draught created by the interior heat making a beeline for the cool exterior. Properly fitted and lined curtains and window treatments are the best way to avoid this effect,” explains Megan.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

Induction cooktop and control area

Convert to induction

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Keen cook Sophie Liu loved cooking on gas until induction came along. She describes why it won her over.

IT’S BEEN two years since I researched and purchased an induction cooktop, and wrote a product profile for ReNew’s sister magazine, Sanctuary (see issue 30). Since then I’ve been using this new technology on a daily basis and it’s official—I’m an induction convert!


I am a keen cook and for the longest time I loved cooking on gas. But the advantages of induction for the environment and usability won me over. Like any new appliance, it took a while to get used to, and there are a few tips and issues worth pointing out and a few downsides to avoid. I’ve also outlined my good experiences and the many advantages of induction cooking below.

Renewably sourced electricity—one, Gas—nil

While cooking makes up a small part of a household’s energy use, it is still important to a home’s environmental footprint and running costs, particularly when other higher energy use areas have been addressed (see ‘Energy-efficient cooking’ and ‘Are we still cooking with gas?’ in ReNew 130). In terms of energy efficiency, ATA’s analysts have found induction comes out on top, just ahead of ceramic electric resistive cooktops, and with both these electric options ahead of gas hobs (input: induction 600 MJ/year, ceramic electric 667 MJ/year, gas 1200 MJ/year, all for the same energy output of 480 MJ/year).

ATA energy analysts estimate that energy use for an average household with a gas cooktop and oven is 2000 MJ/year—less than 4% of the average household’s energy use. By contrast, an induction cooktop and electric oven come out at 1000 MJ/year, 50% less. I also prefer electric induction to gas as I can run it on renewable electricity rather than using a fossil fuel.

With great power comes great responsibility

My experience of cooking with induction is that it’s the fastest, most responsive and most powerful method of cooking out there.

It took some time to get used to the faster, more powerful cooking. At the start, I certainly burnt or overcooked a lot of things—I even spectacularly ruined rice one night, which, with my Chinese heritage, is embarrassing to admit!

However, as with any new appliance, you gradually learn how to use it successfully. Now I know the power levels to start rice or pasta on, then what to turn them down to. We can slow cook things, too, and not have to worry about the gas going out, which often happened on low with our old hob.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

SIPs house

Sealed with a SIP

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Last year the energy costs for this four-person household came to just $560, due to an airtight house design, a PV system well-matched to usage and a switch to all-electric. Kyle O’Farrell describes how they got there.

IN DECEMBER 2012 we were living in a small double-brick ex-Housing Commission home in the northern suburbs of Melbourne. With two growing kids sharing a bedroom and a very non-user-friendly layout, we knew it wasn’t going to work in the longer term. However, we liked where we were living and didn’t want to move. The house was built in 1953 and, aside from some minor wall cracking, it was basically sound and could probably be used as a base for a renovation. So what to do?


We asked architect Mark Sanders at Third Ecology to create three concept house designs for us: two incorporating the existing house and one a completely new build. To our surprise, the estimated cost for the new build was only around 10% more than the renovations. And, with the existing house set well back on the block, the most logical renovation design would mean building in our north-facing backyard with a significant loss of garden space, not something we were keen to do.

Thus we decided on a new build, given the benefits in orientation, block placement, reduction in project time and cost risk (renovations often throw up costly issues along the way), design layout and improved thermal performance.

The previous house was connected to the gas network, but we disconnected it during demolition and we wanted it to stay that way: for environmental, health and financial reasons, not least of which is that gas is a fossil fuel which contributes to climate change. We were also planning to install solar PV and wanted to maximise on-site usage of electricity, rather than pay the expense of a gas connection, gas plumbing and increasing gas prices. Finally, we were planning to build a very well-sealed house, so we felt that piping an asphyxiating and explosive gas into it was worth avoiding if possible. We also didn’t want the combustion products (mainly CO2 and water vapour, but also nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide) in the house.

Around the same time, Beyond Zero Emissions released its Buildings Plan, which strongly supported going gas-free and outlined how to do it. Nice report.

Design for thermal performance

When it came to the house design, we liked the features of the Passive House approach to house construction, but knew there was a higher cost associated with the additional design, construction and certification requirements. Looking around for construction methods that could achieve similar insulation and air sealing, without additional building costs, we found structural insulated panels (SIPs). These are wall panels with a foam core and rigid panels glued to each side. The panels are weight bearing, so timber framework for the external walls is not required.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

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Disconnecting from gas: what’s involved

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Just how do you disconnect from the gas network, and what will it cost? Consultant Kate Leslie investigates.

CONGRATULATIONS, your last gas appliance has been replaced and you are ready to disconnect. How to go about it and what should it cost?


Like all good answers, the answer to this one is “it depends”. It depends mostly on the state you live in and the distributor, a little on your retailer—and there could be an ‘X factor’ of how you approach it.

Generally, retailers are set up to compete for your switching business. Distributors are set up to connect new customers. The experience of dealing with a customer who wishes to disconnect, while not unheard of, is uncommon.

Many people who have disconnected from the gas grid simply organised with their retailer to close their account. The retailer expects you are moving house (and the next occupant will reconnect) or, in states with retail competition for energy, they might think you are taking your business elsewhere. The retailer will notify the distributor and the special meter reading for the final bill and disconnection of supply may or may not be a line item on the bill. Retailers vary.

Alternatively to disconnect, you might contact the distributor that owns the pipes and meters. They also have a set of in-built expectations. You might be demolishing your house (to rebuild it). Or, in infill developments, it is usual to remove the meter of a single dwelling, with the distributor coming back in a number of months or years to install multiple meters for the townhouses or apartments that now stand on the block. Or perhaps for some reason the property will be vacant for a while.

Distributors have options for disconnecting supply, other than physical removal of the meter. Some distributors use plugs and locks (usually where a customer is not paying their gas bill). One distributor in WA removes the pressure regulator. Some distributors say they will ask for enough information from the customer so they can determine the appropriate disconnection method.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.


Solar sizing: big returns

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Why it’s now advisable to ‘go big’ when installing a solar system, even if you don’t use much electricity: Andrew Reddaway presents the latest ATA modelling.

Many people ask us what size grid-connected solar system they should get. Traditionally, the ATA (ReNew’s publisher), has advised people to consider this carefully. If you primarily want to help the environment and cost is of little concern, it has always made sense to install as many panels as possible, as all their generation displaces electricity from dirty, centralised power plants. But most people have budgetary constraints, so their solar system needs to make economic sense as well as help the environment. To achieve this, we’ve previously recommended that people size a solar system based on their electricity consumption and maximise their other opportunities, such as energy efficiency. However, things have changed.


Two big changes

1. Solar system prices

The last five years have seen significant price reductions, especially for larger solar systems. Prices vary with component quality and location, but on average a 5 kW solar system now costs around $6200 according to Solar Choice’s residential price benchmark data.

Let’s compare a 5 kW system to its smaller 2 kW cousin. To compare two different system sizes, the cost is presented in dollars per watt. Figure 1 reveals that since August 2012, the larger systems have halved in price, while the smaller ones have dropped by only a quarter.

Larger systems have always enjoyed economies of scale compared to smaller systems, because while the installer is on the roof it’s relatively easy for them to add more panels. One difference now is that the price of solar panels has fallen faster than other components. The industry has also become more familiar with larger systems, as they are now more frequently installed than small ones.

2. Feed-in tariffs

The Victorian government recently announced that solar feed-in tariffs will rise to 11.3 c/kWh from 1 July 2017, roughly double their previous level, and IPART has recently recommended a similar change in NSW. These changes are primarily due to wholesale electricity prices in the eastern states roughly doubling over the past year to around 10 c/kWh. We expect other states to follow suit, as feed-in tariffs below the wholesale electricity price are clearly unfair to people with solar. (In WA, a similar rise in wholesale rates hasn’t occurred, but prices might still rise due to the state government winding back its subsidy of electricity prices.)

What this means for solar system sizing

Given these changes, if you’re planning a solar system, is it worth it to upsize from, say, 2 kW to 5 kW?

The extra panels will be relatively cheap but more of their generation will be exported, which doesn’t help the economics.For example, depending on household consumption, a solar system rated at 5 kW might export 80% of its generation. Electricity exported to the grid only earns the feed-in tariff, ranging from 5 c to 14 c per kWh, depending on your location and electricity plan. Solar electricity used on-site, rather than exported, saves you paying the grid tariff, typically around 20 c to 35 c per kWh.

Surprisingly, our modelling of the economics found that a 5 kW system now has a shorter or equivalent payback time to the 2 kW system. We studied the economics by simulating a large number of scenarios in half-hour intervals for a whole year using Sunulator, ATA’s free solar feasibility calculator.

Our primary economic measure is payback time, the number of years until bill savings recoup the installation cost—the fewer years the better. Payback times shorter than 10 years are generally considered attractive to solar customers, as the system is likely to pay for itself before any significant expenses, such as replacing the inverter. The panels should last at least 20 years, so cumulative bill savings are large, especially for a larger system.

To do the modelling, we assumed a feed-in tariff of 11.3 c/kWh in Victoria and in other states a doubling of feed-in tariffs from current levels, phased in over the next five years. We considered common grid tariffs in each capital city, for a variety of household consumption profiles, along with likely tariff increases (we used AEMO’s retail tariff forecasts, but since they were based on Hazelwood closing in 2020, which happened this year, we pulled them forward by three years; this allows for annual tariff rises between 1.5% for Queensland and 3.4% for Tasmania). Panels are assumed to be north-facing with a 20-degree tilt. Our analysis also includes panel degradation over time.

Read the full article in ReNew 140The full report on solar sizing, including references, is available at



One phase or three

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If your home has a three-phase power connection, there are a few extra decisions to make when buying appliances, connecting solar or adding batteries. Lance Turner explains.

ALL AC grid electricity is generated using a three-phase system. Because of their relatively modest power needs, most homes are only connected to one of those three phases. However, some homes, such as those that have larger loads, and most commercial premises, have a three-phase electricity connection.


Larger loads can mean that a single-phase connection would be heavily loaded at times. A three-phase connection may be used as it spreads the power draw across all three phases instead of just one. Interestingly, some homes are connected to just two of the three phases.

If moving your home from gas to all-electric, you may also consider upgrading an existing single-phase connection to a three-phase connection. For an energy-efficient home this shouldn’t really be necessary, but for larger homes or homes with a single large load such as an EV fast charger, an upgrade to a three-phase connection may be desirable or even necessary.

At the very least, smaller (40 amp) single-phase connections may need to be upgraded to something larger, such as an 80 amp connection. Any grid connection upgrade will usually require cables between the residence and the grid to be replaced, which can be expensive, depending on your energy company, location, cable installation type (overhead or underground) and length of cable back to the grid, and may run to several thousand dollars. Shifting from single phase to three-phase will definitely need cable replacement—each phase needs its own cable, and will also require a meter upgrade.

Having a three-phase connection to a home does allow for greater flexibility with appliance selection as you can use either single-phase or three-phase appliances as desired. If you are upgrading to a three-phase connection purely to install a large solar system, then the cost of the connection upgrade must be added to the system cost when factoring in system payback times.

Read the full article in ReNew 140.

Induction cooking

Money-saving results in Melbourne

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This family of four saved around $250 last winter by heating their home with a reverse-cycle unit instead of their older gas ducted system. They went on to swap out the remaining gas appliances, disconnect gas from their property and save even more. Stephen Zuluaga explains.

IN 2012, our family moved to a three-bedroom brick veneer townhouse in the south-eastern suburbs of Melbourne. The house was constructed in 2001 and it’s likely that’s when its original gas ducted heating, water heater and stove were installed.


We’d always been interested in keeping our energy costs down, but, like many people, we just assumed that high gas bills in winter were a part of life. We found that our two-month gas bill spiked significantly in winter due to heating, rising from around $80 in summer up to around $400 in winter.

Then in September 2015 I came across an article on The Conversation which proved to be a turning point. Tim Forcey’s article1 described research undertaken at the Melbourne Energy Institute which suggested that efficient electric appliances—heat pumps—could heat your home more cheaply than gas.

Intrigued, I got in contact with Tim to learn more. He introduced me to the My Efficient Electric Home Facebook group and, through contacts made there, I spoke to many efficiency experts and interested householders like myself about ways to reduce costs and increase efficiency.

In hindsight I can see that I was heading down the path of all-electric, but I wasn’t really looking at it like that at the time: it was just about replacing inefficient appliances with efficient ones.

There are many motives for wanting to improve efficiency and for us the primary driver was financial. Over the course of converting our house to all-electric, I spoke to others who had a combination of environmental, efficiency, financial and technological motives. I really like the fact that no matter what your motive is, you can get an outcome that both lowers costs and reduces environmental impact.

Read the full article in ReNew 140, or on the website of our partners Positive Charge.

pumping in wall insulation

Insulation upgrades

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Reader stories on how they improved the thermal performance of their homes, while reducing energy bills. By Eva Matthews.

Dennis Kavanagh has been incrementally improving his home in Blackburn, in Melbourne’s east, over the last few years. As well as deciding to go all-electric and installing a 9.8 kW solar PV system on his roof around 11 months ago, Dennis turned his attention to improving the home’s thermal performance through insulation and draughtproofing.

Little existing insulation


After attending a free EnviroGroup presentation run by ecoMaster on these topics, Dennis ordered a premium assessment for his home, which resulted in a number of recommendations and quotations to address them. They identified his ceiling insulation, which had been installed about 40 years ago, as being in reasonable condition but only rated R1.0. There was no insulation in the walls or underfloor. With Dennis unable to “crawl up or into awkward spots” himself, ecoMaster installed the insulation in the roof and underfloor in August 2015, both in the same day. Access to the roof was via the manhole; underfloor access was limited under the bathroom, laundry and some of the third bedroom, so they achieved around 70% coverage there.

For the walls, being brick veneer, Dennis’s best option was to have the insulation pumped in. As this type of application can cause a fire hazard, and the installers ecoMaster recommend require an electrical safety certificate, Dennis organised an inspection prior to the installation, using electricians from EnviroGroup. After checking behind power points and testing at the meterbox, and with Dennis having upgraded his wiring recently, they determined that all was good to go.

In January 2017, one man with a truck of granulated Rockwool (mineral wool) pumped in the insulation in less than a day. Most of the walls were accessible by shifting some tiles on the roof, through which the insulation was pumped in down a flexible hose. Solar panels were in the way in some spots, so not all the walls could be accessed from above; in this case Dennis thinks the insulation may have been pumped across from a neighbouring entry point. Holes were then drilled under the windows to pump into those lower spaces, and a mortar mix used to patch them. Although Dennis was somewhat concerned about whether it would match the existing mortar, he says it worked out well: “Unless you look closely, you don’t even notice it.” Also, batts were put in to fill gaps between the top of the timber wall framing and roof.

Read the full article, with two other case studies, in ReNew 140.


Battery storage gets competitive

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It seems the convergence of environmental realities and the economics of renewables is finally escalating apace. While large-scale wind and solar farms have been the big focus of the last few years (and continue to be), large-scale battery storage has become ‘the next big thing’.

Globally and domestically, governments and corporations are rolling out big storage projects that will provide the missing link between renewable energy generation and grid stabilisation/meeting peak demand.


In a few months, Germany will accept delivery of Europe’s biggest battery—a 48 MW/50 MWh lithium-ion unit—that will help provide grid stability in the Jardelund region near the border with Denmark, which currently relies on intermittent wind power. In the USA, its largest battery storage facility, the 20 MW/80 MWh Pomona Energy Storage Facility in Southern California, opened in January this year. India’s first (10 MW) grid-scale battery storage system was also launched in January, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance is slating that 800 MW of storage could be commissioned by 2020.

In Australia, in the wake of South Australia’s recent ‘crisis’ of energy supply, a key response from the SA Government has been to support the construction (by winning tender, before year’s end) of a 100 MW battery —Australia’s largest to date—with $150 m from a renewable technology fund. There have been 90 expressions of interest from 10 countries. [Update: this tender has now been awarded.]

One of the companies competing, Australia’s Lyon Group, has said that, regardless of the outcome of the tender process, it will build a $1 b battery and solar farm—believed to be the world’s biggest—by the end of this year, in SA’s Riverland region: 3.4 million solar panels and 1.1 million batteries will generate 330 MW of electricity and provide 100 MW/400 MWh of battery storage (depending on configuration). The project is fully financed, with grid connection already well progressed. The company’s 120 MW solar/100 MW/200 MWh battery Kingfisher project in SA’s Roxby Downs is also due to start construction in September 2017, to be running by June 2018. A third smaller storage project of 20MW/80MWh is also being developed on Cape York.

The Victorian Government recently announced a $20 m tender, as part of its $25 m Storage Initiative, which calls for proposals detailing the construction of large-scale storage facilities in the state’s west. Applications close mid-June and, from the process, the government aims to deploy up to two projects that will provide at least 100 MWh of battery storage by January 2018.

The ACT’s Next Generation Storage Program is committed to providing around 36 MW of distributed battery storage, through subsidised residential batteries, which plans to see 5000 homes signed up by 2020. And in the Northern Territory, results of a tender for 5 MW of battery storage (the nation’s largest, until the SA and Vic announcements, above) are about to be released.

Feature image: A peek into the Pomona Energy Storage Facility; at 20 MW/80 MWh, currently the largest in the USA. Image: Pomona Energy Storage, courtesy AltaGas Ltd


The Pears Report: Far from the madding policy

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Are we finally moving from energy policy madness to policy making? Alan Pears explores the glimmers of hope.

THE THREAT of electricity blackouts in southern Australia next summer and our bizarre ‘gas crisis’ seem to be dragging us out of the rock-throwing approach to energy policy making.


Stabilising the situation in southern Australia
While initially the debate over South Australia’s problems was about supply, the need to stabilise the situation before next summer has driven some useful developments on both the demand and supply sides.

A call for bids to provide battery storage resulted in 31 bids. Rooftop solar is booming, and large-scale solar and wind are going gangbusters.
This highlights how fast our 21st century energy industry can respond. It also shows how risky those big projects that take years to implement are. Even PM Turnbull’s ideas for Snowy and Tasmanian hydro will struggle to compete in the new world of modular, distributed energy solutions.

We have also seen a belated recognition that demand response can fix short-term problems. Demand response involves aggregators contracting businesses to cut demand or run backup generators at short notice—when paid a fair price for their contribution. This provides guaranteed reduction in electricity (or gas) demand, reducing the need for additional supply capacity.

It is widely used in other parts of the world, but our energy policy makers have been glacially slow in establishing a framework. States will need to set up demand response mechanisms through energy retailers, which they still regulate, as national regulators are very unlikely to act quickly enough.

Since first writing this, AEMO and ARENA have announced a demand response pilot project ( of 100 megawatts. This is great, as someone is finally responding to the obvious: demand response is the quickest, cheapest way of avoiding blackouts. But the way this is being done has also exposed how broken our national energy market system is: they have had to work around the normal mechanisms. We need much more demand response capacity to break the market power of the gas and coal generators, so there is still a need for states to use their powers over energy retailers to drive demand response.

Energy efficiency programs could also help. When SA suffered blackouts because of a 90 megawatt (MW) shortfall, demand was around 3000 MW. At that time, household cooling was probably over 1000 MW: an ongoing building and air conditioner energy efficiency program could have avoided the problem, as shown in the graph on the next page.

The gas crisis
A sudden increase in wholesale gas prices and the difficulties many industries have had even negotiating new gas contracts have uncovered chronic failure in gas policy. It has also exposed the reality that many former energy ministers and politicians work for the gas (and oil and coal) industry.

For decades, Australian governments have proudly described our low energy prices as a competitive advantage—which has led local industry to complacently maintain appallingly inefficient use of energy. But governments have quietly supported an ‘open’ economy, including world parity pricing for oil and gas. These two positions have never been reconciled. The recent gas crisis has exposed a lot of skeletons.

The suddenness of the shift in east coast gas prices has shocked almost everyone. Yet a 2014 study by Deloitte Access Economics1 predicted a multi-billion dollar shift in annual income to the gas industry from other industries, and over 10,000 job losses.

The gas problem has spilled over to electricity, as high-priced gas generation has replaced lower-priced alternatives, due to factors including Abbott’s war on renewables (see The Pears Report in ReNew 139) and closures of old coal generators.

Logical policy would have assisted or required gas users to improve efficiency as markets were gradually exposed to global prices. But we have inadequately regulated, poorly designed markets.

I wasn’t surprised when the government intervened. A situation where Australians are paying more for gas than countries we export gas to clearly does not pass the PM’s ‘pub test’.

Energy efficiency and productivity—glimmers of hope
Most of Australia’s energy efficiency policies focus on providing consumer information and setting fairly weak standards for new equipment and buildings. Policies providing information on building performance at time of resale or lease are emerging. For existing buildings and equipment, limited information and energy auditing programs dominate. The ACT, NSW, Victoria and South Australia offer financial incentives for some activities under their energy retailer obligation schemes.

While these programs have delivered useful savings, they fall well short of an optimum outcome for society. Many of the benefits they deliver are not even measured or costed, and levels of ambition are low.

To put this in context, Australia is supposedly trying to implement climate policies at least cost. Our energy efficiency policies deliver tens of millions of tonnes of emission reductions at costs of minus $20 to minus $200 per tonne of avoided emissions. Put another way, they often offer benefit to cost ratios of around 8 to 1—saving Australians $8 for each dollar invested. Yet the Emission Reduction Fund pays around $12 per tonne of emissions avoided.

Yes, we have our National Energy Productivity Plan (with funding of $18 million), the $200 million NSW five-year plan and many others. But we spend tens of billions of dollars each year wasting energy. And if we included the cost of carbon emissions, that waste would increase by more billions. We have the balance very wrong.

One problem in mobilising improved energy efficiency and productivity is that decision-makers rarely invest in energy saving measures costing more than two or three times their annual savings—a two or three year payback. This is equivalent to delivering 30% to 50% annual interest. We don’t expect that from any other investment, including renewable energy.

There are lots of reasons for this that I’m not going into here. What interests me is that the potential to change this financially disastrous situation is beginning to take shape.

Residential peak electricity demand for South Australia, 2015. This shows the activities contributing to household electricity demand at the times of summer and winter peaks, compared with their average contributions when annual consumption is divided by the number of hours in a year. Over the whole year, heating and cooling is a relatively small proportion of average electricity demand, but it is a large proportion of the (much higher) summer and winter peak demand. Source: EnergyConsult.

Beyond energy audits
It is difficult to pinpoint the actual causes of energy waste in many appliances, buildings and industrial processes. Traditional auditing and sub-metering approaches don’t pick up many less obvious problems. Even when a problem is identified, someone has to do something about it. This costs money and time, and diverts focus from core activities. It involves risks, such as working with a contractor you haven’t used before or changing a process central to delivering your business income or your health or safety. And you have to find the money upfront.

Sophisticated analytical techniques are emerging that reduce or avoid the need for physical energy audits and sub-metering. Dynamic real-time benchmarking against models that predict ‘ideal’ performance can identify emerging problems and alert operators. Machine learning can identify the energy-consuming characteristics of each item of equipment to work out where energy is wasted as well as how much (see for example this CSIRO project:

These systems can calculate the cost of energy waste. They can also offer businesses and households tangible benefits that are often worth far more than the value of the energy saved, such as avoiding failure of a production line. Avoiding loss of a fridge full of food or avoiding the need to quickly replace a failed hot water service can avert a family crisis: what’s that worth?

New financing models
Another changing dimension is the emergence of new financing options to remove upfront cost barriers, not just for energy efficiency investments but for renewables, storage and other options. Financing can be packaged with ongoing monitoring and management systems and other services.

More households and businesses are placing value on insuring themselves against price rises and reliability issues of conventional energy systems, while the costs of alternatives are falling and their user-friendliness is improving.

Innovation across many fields is transforming energy and resource requirements and fundamental business design for delivery of many products and services, and converting demand for products (and infrastructure) into services. Online shopping, health care and many other services create remarkable changes. Distributed manufacturing, 3D printing, computerised design, prefabricated building and many other changes are transforming production. Many also fit well with development of ‘closed loop’ resource use.

My awareness of these remarkable changes was raised recently by my involvement in writing a report for the Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity.2 This report scans emerging innovations that may have a big impact on energy productivity and efficiency. It is amazing how much is happening, even in Australia. There may yet be hope for Australia to become a low-carbon, successful 21st century economy! S

1. Deloitte Access Economics: ‘Gas Market Transformations— Economic Consequences for the Manufacturing Sector’,
2. Australian Alliance for Energy Productivity (A2eEP): ‘The Next Wave’,

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, complete with analysis of a range of energy policy themes, at

This article was first published in ReNew 140.


Product profile: Optimised solar panels

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Many solar arrays experience partial shading for part of the day—even a large bird dropping on a single solar panel can reduce that panel’s output considerably.


Until recently the solution for optimising output has been to use either microinverters or solar optimisers on each panel—ie, optimisation at the panel level. Because solar panels have multiple separate strings of solar cells, optimising at the string level produces energy output improvements for panels experiencing shading on one of the strings, as the other two strings may be producing maximum output. With a panel-level optimised panel, the underperforming string will drag down the other two, but with a string-level optimised panel, the third string can be optimised for maximum total output.

Maxim Integrated has developed a small IC for string-level optimisation of solar panels. At least two manufacturers that supply the Australian market incorporate the Maxim optimisers into their panels—Jinko’s Smart Module and Trina’s Honey Maxim (pictured). These panels incorporate three optimiser ICs per panel, giving three separate strings that can be individually optimised.

RRP: POA. Jinko and Trina modules are available from numerous solar installers and are distributed by Krannich Solar (as well as some other distributors), Also see, and

Read more product profiles in ReNew 140.

Q&A: Electric bathroom heating

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We are ditching our gas connection as part of a major renovation and switching from ducted gas and evaporative cooling to multiple reverse-cycle units that will heat the living and bedroom spaces only. What is the most efficient and greenhouse friendly way of providing heat to bathrooms? I have been looking at a Clipsal strip heater as well as a unit from Heatstrip.
—Ben Purcell



Efficiency of electric heaters are all the same, i.e. 100% of what goes into them turns into heat; it’s just the type of heat that matters. The high-temperature radiant heaters like the Clipsal and similar have a near-instant heat but can overheat you if you are too close. They also have elements that eventually burn out, usually in the middle of winter when they are being used the most, in my experience.

The lower temperature units like the Heatstrip are still higher temperature than ‘true’ far infrared heaters, but they have a similar effect. You can get an idea of running temperatures by looking at how large the panel is compared to its wattage rating. For example, my true far infrared heater (a Heat-on 600 W DIY panel at is 600 watts and measures 900 x 600 mm, so 1111 watts per square metre. The Heatstrip 800 watt unit, for instance, is 624 x 235 mm, so 5455 watts per square metre, so it would run at a considerably higher temperature.

Between the Clipsal and Heatstrip, I would go for the Heatstrip if the budget allows, as it should last pretty much forever, looks nicer and should feel nicer on the skin as well. But the average high-temperature strip heater like the Clipsal is going to be about a tenth of the cost to buy, so you have to weigh that up as well.

Most bathrooms end up with the common combined heat lamp/light/fan fittings; however, they cause a large ceiling penetration that can’t be insulated over (it’s usually better to avoid ceiling penetrations), although being a square box, you can insulate up to them effectively. The heat lamp fittings in many of them are usually fairly well sealed inside the main box, although even the draught-sealed units such as the IXL Eco Tastic have some small manufacturing holes in the metal case that allow some air bleed into the ceiling, so it’s worth sealing those before installation.
—Lance Turner


Update from ATA’s branches

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The ATA branches continue to share practical solutions and information on sustainability, renewable energy, building design and energy efficiency. Here’s a summary of this year’s branch activities.



This year the Adelaide branch has hosted presentations on the Mount Barker eco development and Sundrop Farms sustainable food production. They have also organised site visits for ATA members to Seeley International and Fluid Solar House.


The Brisbane branch started the year with an evening on the ATA’s East Timor Village Lighting Scheme. Since then, they have covered the circular economy, closed loop production and the off-grid experience of Goolawah Cooperative.


The Cairns branch continues to conduct ATA stalls at local events to promote sustainability issues. Look out for them at the Cairns ECO Fiesta and Koah Markets.


This year Canberra branch has held meetings investigating an all-electric home and using smart home solar to protect our power grids.

Geelong EV

The Geelong EV branch meets monthly to hear from members about their practical electric vehicle projects, along with discussions on current and emerging EV technologies and planning for private workshop projects. They are also include information sessions in their meetings on EV equipment and concepts.


The Melbourne branch has covered a lot of bases this year, with evenings focusing on Reposit Power, ARENA and the challenges to the energy industry in the transition to renewables. They also organised site visits to EcoLiv Wonthaggi and The Cape project at Cape Paterson, and an advance screening of Our Power.

Melbourne EV

After a hugely successful Melbourne EV Expo last year, the Melbourne EV branch is planning a larger event for February 2018. See for details. Currently this year they have hosted meetings focusing on Tesla and batteries for SA, the upcoming Model 3, the ‘electric highway’ proposed for Victoria by the AEVA and improvements in lithium ion battery technology.


The Perth branch would like to relaunch regular meetings, so if you are interested in helping to make ATA activities in the Perth area a reality, please contact Travis at or Doug Rolfe, ATA Branch Coordinator at

Sydney Central

The Sydney Central branch has had meetings on a range of excellent topics, including the pros and cons of prefab building, green roofs and walls, and an update on battery storage for urban areas. They also organised a site visit to the innovative Stucco Coop apartment block to view their solar+battery energy storage system.

Sydney West

The Sydney West branch uses the Hawkesbury EarthCare Centre as the base for its meetings and has opened the centre for Sustainable House Day. If you’re passing through the Richmond area it’s definitely worth a look.

Tas South

Yes, we now have a branch in Hobart! The branch is working alongside the Australian Solar Council to organise events. So far this year they’ve had a talk on sustainability and the built environment, the Bruny Island Battery Trial Project and Passivehouse design and construction.

Tas North

Spanning the area from Devonport to Launceston, this branch started the year with an event on bushfire risk and climate change with a focus on practical responses. They ran a display at AGFEST again this year, along with the AEVA. At their most recent event they heard about the Meander Valley Council’s Bioenergy Project.


Following up from their successful Toowoomba Electric Vehicle Expo late last year, the Toowoomba branch ran a forum on community owned renewable energy. They have also organised a visit to the UQ Gatton solar farm and an ATA stall at Farmfest 2017.

Wollongong (new)

Our new branch in Wollongong is going strong. This year events have included meetings on future electricity demands and distribution as well as how electric bikes and bike share systems are revolutionising transport.

As you can see there’s a lot going on in ATA branches around the country! Branches are always keen to share their knowledge; see for upcoming meetings and contact details, or contact Doug Rolfe, ATA Branch Coordinator, on 03 9631 5407 or

We sometimes get enquiries from people wanting a branch in their area. If that’s you, then contact Doug and we can help you get started.