Overcoming the energy crisis through home energy management

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By Julianne Tice, Building Policy Advisor, Energy Efficiency Council

For many of us – especially those in Victoria – two years of stay-at-home orders have seen us spend too much time in cold, uncomfortable and, in some cases, dangerously unsanitary homes, followed by a surprise bill at the end of winter. Concern over energy bills has only increased with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its impact on global gas and electricity prices. So what can be done to mitigate the price impacts for consumers?

When it comes to energy bills, the total cost matters much more than the price per unit of energy consumed. While it’s true that total bills go up if prices go up and consumption stays the same, energy management practices can help lower bills even when prices go up.

Most homes in Australia are rated less than three stars out of a possible ten under the National House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS). To put this into perspective, a 2015 study found that upgrading pre-2005 Victorian homes with an average NatHERS rating of 1.8 stars down to five stars could potentially reduce total energy use by 45%. .2% – a seemingly small increase with massive savings implications.

Possibilities to reduce consumption: quick solutions

Home energy management refers not only to the efficiency of the actual building structure (called the “building envelope”) and fixed appliances (i.e. heating, cooling and water hot), but also to energy consumption. For example, excessive heating in the winter will lead to higher energy bills, regardless of heating efficiency – but an efficient home that reduces the need to run the heating will lead to lower bills.

Consumers can take various steps to lower their bills. Some are quick and easy, and some require a longer commitment of time or money. Energy-saving measures that consumers can take now – without making changes to their homes or buying fancy equipment – ​​include:

1. Use the very efficient heating that already exists in many homes: a reverse cycle air conditioner. Although some households use plug-in auxiliary heaters, pressing the button with the sun symbol provides much cheaper heating.

2. Seal holes and cracks in floors and walls with caulk or spray foam. Homes in Australia tend to be very permeable, which causes outdoor air infiltration and makes indoor living spaces uncomfortable. Sealing cracks and gaps can significantly reduce the need for heating and cooling

3. Maintain indoor temperatures within the recommended range: 18-20° in winter and 22-24° in summer. In winter, each degree of increase in household heating can increase consumption by up to 10%

4. Replace incandescent or halogen bulbs with LED bulbs, which use 80% less electricity and last much longer than older bulbs. Households in Victoria and New South Wales can access incentives for these upgrades now

5. Maximize the self-consumption of photovoltaic solar energy of households. PV-equipped households can program devices to take advantage of “free” solar power during the day, rather than exporting it for a relatively small feed-in tariff

Renovations are needed

As consumers more easily manage their immediate energy consumption, more solutions are available in the short to medium term, but which involve additional effort and financial commitment. The most important thing homes need to help consumers avoid rising energy costs is to improve the quality of the existing housing stock through renovations. This includes:

• Improved levels of insulation and protection against drafts. Australian homes are generally under-insulated and therefore uncomfortable. Installing insulation in an attic, in walls and under floors can be invasive, but the savings in terms of bills, and especially comfort, are enormous

• Replacement of resistive gas and electric heating and hot water systems with efficient electrical appliances. Heat pump hot water systems and reverse cycle air conditioners are super efficient and can provide inexpensive heating and hot water even in very cold weather.

• Consider electrifying the house. Research shows that all-electric homes can save households thousands of dollars

Countries already feeling the pain of the energy crisis are creating incentives to encourage these actions. In the United States, President Biden invoked an order to restart production of heat pumps and insulation.

The European Union has introduced the REPowerEU plan to reduce its dependence on Russian fossil fuels, recognizing that “saving energy is the fastest and cheapest way to tackle the current energy crisis and reduce bills” . And the UK introduced subsidies to encourage the installation of heat pumps earlier this year.

Incentives, public and private investments and information campaigns are needed to encourage households to adopt these improvements. But government policy can go further by introducing measures to help every home reach its full potential for health, affordability and comfort. These include:

• Minimum energy efficiency standards in rental housing help ensure tenants, not just landlords, benefit from energy efficiency

• Mandatory disclosure of energy efficiency ratings for homes, which helps make energy efficiency visible and supports homeowner choice

• A long-term electrification plan, which would provide certainty for investors and ensure that households that remain on the gas grid do not face disproportionate costs

• Continuous improvement of building codes to make new homes zero-emissions ready will ensure they are built to the highest possible standards

Australian homes have an energy problem, and it’s time to intervene. While we need to help households manage future bill shocks, simply providing direct financial relief will not solve the underlying problem of Australian homes needing too much energy.

By getting smarter about how households use energy – and helping buildings not waste energy – consumers have the opportunity to lower their energy costs even as prices rise.

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