Australia Energy efficiency rules considered for Northern Territory buildings, years after other states
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Even on a sweltering hot day in the tropics, consultant Anya Lorimer is ready to rug up for meetings in Darwin's heavily air-conditioned office buildings.
"You'll walk up the mall with your jacket off but you'll always take your jacket to a meeting," she said.
"You just don't know what type of air con you'll be walking into."
Researchers say the Top End capital is one of the world's highest consumers of cooling energy.
And it's not just because of the year-round warm weather, according to Mattheos Santamouris, from the University of New South Wales.
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"The cooling energy needs are very, very high and this is because of the quality of buildings," he said.
For more than a decade, construction in the Northern Territory has not had to meet minimum energy efficiency standards adopted around the rest of the country.
The result is a city full of commercial buildings using large amounts of energy to battle hot conditions outside and inefficient design within.
Some of that now looks set to change — slowly.
Government going slow in face of 'pushback'
From the start of next month, all new NT government building works costing more than $3 million will have to meet the minimum energy efficiency standards in the National Construction Code, known as section J.
The standard was adopted by most other states and territories from 2006 onwards and serves to lower electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions.
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The second-term NT government says it's now leading by example — and it has stopped just short of requiring the NT construction industry to follow.
Instead Labor has commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of implementing section J for commercial construction.
Infrastructure Minister Eva Lawler said concerns about extra construction costs had played a part in industry pushback on the regulation "in the past".
She said quantifying the costs and benefits of the potential change was a step towards making it.
"It is about taking industry with us, showing them through this research, hopefully, just how beneficial it can be to have energy-efficient buildings," she said.
Darwin-based energy consultant Matt Hoogland, who is leading the study, said a "split incentive" could mean builders and developers sought to keep construction costs low, at the expense of the occupant's future electricity bill and a building's environmental impact.
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"The developer may not be the occupier of the building, so the developer may not have the incentive to build the building with energy efficiency in mind. So what the standard will do is bring a minimum level of performance to all our commercial buildings," he said.
The study will map the construction and operation costs of different building types in Darwin and Alice Springs — including office buildings, retail premises and hospitals — and calculate the potential lifetime benefits of section J compliance.
The Property Council NT declined to comment on the government's announcements, although it has previously voiced support for the adoption of section J.
A spokesperson said the council was seeking more information from the government about its plans.
'Business as usual' becoming unaffordable
Sustainability experts say the temperatures forecast for Darwin's future make the status quo unaffordable.
The CSIRO expects the number of days over 35 degrees to increase from 11 to 43 by the end of the decade and up to 300 by 2070.
"This will have a tremendous impact on energy consumption for cooling," Professor Santamouris said.
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"If there is a scenario of business as usual, it may correspond to an increase in energy consumption of 100 per cent or even more."
Consultant and Charles Darwin University lecturer Sandra Howlin said the government's announcements were a start, with a long way to go.
She said new, larger-scale government builds should do better than the minimum standard and the $3 million threshold "excludes a lot of the smaller premises around town".
"It also doesn't benefit, say, a small business owner who leases space — it has no relevance to those sorts of consumers at all, nor will it reduce their power bills in any way," she said.
Professor Santamouris estimates Darwin buildings are using up to three times the energy consumed in similar conditions in Singapore.
Ms Howlin said the decade that has passed without local minimum standards meant the NT had fallen behind the rest of the country and world.
"Developed countries really are looking at the energy that's put into buildings in terms of heating and cooling and how they can reduce that," she said.
"Here in the Territory, we really need to be looking at that and if we don't look at it, that gap between our building standards and those in other developed countries just widens and we lose contact with what is seen as a modern standard of building construction."
The section J cost-benefit analysis is due back in August, with no timeline set by the government for a decision after that.
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