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A word from Rom - Targeting renewable energy

Targeting renewable energy
Romilly Madew, Chief Executive Officer
Green Building Council of Australia

Australia’s future rests with renewable energy, not fossil fuels.

The Australian Government’s Energy White Paper, released in April, imagines a future in which our nation continues to be powered by coal and gas – even though we know these fuels are polluting and unsustainable.

In April, the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitters, including China and the US, queried the credibility of our nation’s climate change targets – specifically the Direct Action policy.  In questions lodged with the United Nations for our government to answer in the lead up to COP21 in Paris, China asks us to explain the fairness in doing less to cut emissions than we demand of other countries.

Costa Rica, Iceland and Denmark now run entirely on renewable energy.  India is expanding its solar (and nuclear) energy footprint.  China has limited coal to 65 per cent of energy consumption.  The United States has pledged to slash emissions by ensuring at least 20 per cent of its energy comes from renewable sources by 2030.

As economist Ross Gittins says, “the more the rest of the world seeks to reduce its use of coal and other fossil fuels, the more Australian businesses need to contemplate the possibility of their mines becoming ‘stranded assets’ – assets that suddenly become unprofitable and so lose their value.”  Let’s hope Australia doesn’t become a ‘stranded nation’ – an increasingly isolated island in a carbon-positive world.

We can also see that energy use in Australia is declining.  Energy Use in the Australian Residential Sector 1986-2020 projects a six per cent decline in energy consumption by 2020 below 1990 levels – an impressive outcome considering increases in the average size of houses and use of air conditioning, and the diverse range of power-hungry electronic devices.  The report attributes this decline in consumption to energy efficiency measures in buildings and appliances.

Renewable energy technology has accelerated so rapidly that we are reaching the point where we could operate the entire nation on it.  As Mark Diesendorf, Associate Professor and Deputy Director, Institute of Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales says, “we already have technically feasible scenarios to run the Australian electricity industry on 100% renewable energy — without significantly affecting supply.”

Most sectors of the economy foresee a future where emissions-intensive energy will become both scarce and expensive – and they are developing strategies to reduce risk, meet investor expectations and capitalise on opportunities. Many organisations plan to, or are already optimising energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy, either directly into on-site or off-site generation or through purchase from the grid.

However, the efforts of individual organisations or sectors of the economy will not be able to achieve the scale of change we need without structural change and the support of consistent, integrated policy from all levels of government.

What does this have to do with sustainable buildings and communities?

We have solid research which confirms that Green Star-rated buildings use 66 per cent less electricity than their non-green counterparts – and Australia leads the world in delivering sustainable, efficient, productive buildings. 

Many of the 855 Green Star-rated building projects around Australia have invested in renewable energy solutions.  We’ve proven that low-carbon, and even carbon-positive buildings are achievable and affordable.  Green Star – Design & As Built promotes the use of renewable energy systems both in buildings and offsite.

Oliver Hartley, founder of GBCA member organisation Epho and solar energy expert, says that “most buildings across Australia are not taking advantage of their solar opportunities.  For most organisations the payback periods of solar installations are just a few years”.

The 6 Star Green Star-rated Sir Samuel Griffith Centre at Queensland’s Griffith University is just one of hundreds of inspiring examples – and it clearly demonstrates why we need less coal-fired electricity than ever before. 

The Centre has been designed to operate independently of the electricity grid, with 1,000 solar photovoltaic panels generating more than enough electricity to power the whole building on sunny days.  Surplus solar energy is stored in batteries and powers an electrolyser that splits water to make hydrogen. The hydrogen is then stored in a stable form as metal hydrides. When there’s no sun, the hydrogen can be brought back from storage, and used to generate electricity in a fuel cell.  As the University’s Professor Evan Gray says, “the Sir Samuel Griffith Centre establishes a new paradigm for supplying electricity reliably where there is no grid, such as townships, telecommunications installations and industries across outback Australia.”

Another GBCA member, Australand, is implementing renewable energy solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to protect its customers from rising energy costs. Australand has installed 100kW of solar PV and has a further 150kW under construction. Of this 250kW, around 60 per cent would not have been built without the small-scale technology certificates supported by the RET.

And this is why the Abbott Government’s decision to slash the Renewable Energy Target is so disappointing.

The RET has supported investment in renewable energy solutions across Australia, reducing the emissions intensity in our national energy market and energy bills for building owners and tenants alike.  It has encouraged more than 15,000 businesses to invest in solar power which has, in turn, supported more than 13,000 jobs, benefitting the Australian economy and boosting our international competitiveness. 

New analysis by Bloomberg New Energy Finance finds that new investment in Australian large-scale renewable energy projects fell by 90 per cent over the year to March.  Of the $206.9 million invested, $160 million came from government agencies – such as the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – that the Coalition government wants to scrap.  Bloomberg argues that dramatic drop can be attributed to policy uncertainty.

The Green Building Council of Australia will continue to advocate for a range of consistent, comprehensive policies that help Australia take advantages of a low-carbon economy – but we need our political leaders to invest in Australia’s future, not cling to its past.