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Revamping Australia’s Residential Energy Efficiency – A New Era Beckons?

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Australia is witnessing an exciting shift in residential energy efficiency with the amendments to the National Construction Code (NCC) 2022. These changes reflect a decisive stride towards sustainability and a greener future. However, as we celebrate the progress, it’s vital to extend our focus beyond just new constructions and towards the multitude of existing homes, a space where much work still remains to be done.

The Australian Building Codes Board (ABCD) has introduced these amendments to the NCC with a keen focus on improving the energy efficiency of residential buildings. The rules mandate a higher minimum level of thermal performance for new homes, now set at 7 stars under the Nationwide House Energy Rating Scheme (NatHERS), and the implementation of an annual energy use budget for each home. The latter includes considerations for heating and cooling equipment, hot water systems, lighting, and even swimming pool and spa pumps. While renewable energy systems aren’t obligatory, their incorporation can significantly help maintain a home’s energy use within the required budget.

Meanwhile, the challenge that the housing sector continues to face is the vast number of existing homes that are far from meeting the acceptable energy efficiency standards. Housing Industry Association (HIA) statistics underline the magnitude of this challenge. With the number of dwellings nationwide exceeding 10 million, and only 181,113 new dwellings built in 2021, it’s clear that the potential for improving energy efficiency lies largely within the existing housing stock.

Inadequate energy efficiency in existing homes translates to an array of issues. For instance, most of these homes barely achieve a two-star rating in energy performance. Consequently, occupants experience temperature extremes during both summer and winter, leading to discomfort and potential health risks, particularly for those on low incomes or who rent. Therefore, an immediate need is the implementation of a robust strategy that addresses the retrofitting of existing homes. Such a strategy could encompass elements like financial incentives, minimum requirements at point of sale, minimum rental standards, and educating landlords, among others.

Looking beyond Australian borders, advanced economies like the EU and California have already made strides in achieving “zero-carbon-ready” building codes. Such codes are instrumental in decarbonizing the building sector and aligning with legislated climate targets. They also offer financial benefits in the long run, by significantly reducing energy consumption and providing a buffer against energy price spikes.

While the recent upgrades to the NCC herald a new era in energy efficiency for new constructions, it’s clear that a broader perspective needs to be embraced. Aiming for higher standards should extend beyond the realm of new builds and encapsulate the existing housing stock to realize significant improvements in overall residential energy efficiency. The upcoming updates to the NCC in 2025 and 2028 represent further opportunities to pave the way for a “zero-carbon-ready” building code by 2030.

As Australia moves towards a greener future, it’s essential to remember that every home, whether old or new, plays a crucial role in this transformation. It’s in addressing the energy efficiency of these millions of existing homes that Australia can truly make an enduring and impactful stride towards sustainability.

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