The Energy Efficiency Employment in Australia report suggests the sector is bigger than most people – especially politicians – realise, writes Tristan Edis.

More people are employed in jobs that involve energy efficiency than any other part of the energy sector, including coal mining and electricity networks, the Energy Efficiency Employment in Australia report found. The analysis took two approaches: the first was an extrapolation of the US Department of Energy’s 2017 Energy and Employment Report, which suggested energy efficiency jobs in Australia to be as high as 236,000.

The second approach was more fine-grained and considered only those people working in professions and industry subsectors with a direct involvement in the design, specification, installation and maintenance of energy-consuming equipment. That approach revealed 59,000 full-time equivalent jobs (FTE) and about half-a-million for whom energy efficiency accounts for part of their work time, including architects, construction managers, engineers, electricians and technicians, facilities managers and experts in air-conditioning refrigeration, insulation and lighting (see chart).

Indicative Australian employment in energy efficiency relative to other Australian energy industry sectors

The analysis of potential for new jobs was based on known “low-hanging fruit” energy efficiency upgrade opportunities across three sectors: residential, commercial and industrial with short paybacks and using mature technologies.

Australian governments would need to adopt policies aimed at accelerating energy efficiency improvement that require a large workforce to build, use and maintain. Such policies would need to include: energy efficiency ratings for buildings, appliances and equipment, building capacity within businesses to manage their energy use through training, correcting distortions in the energy market, and energy savings schemes.

The report estimated the following:

  • 120,000 job years of work would be stimulated (where 120,000 job years equates to 12,000 jobs a year for 10 years, or 24,000 jobs a year for five years. So for example, policies that stimulate more energy upgrades sooner will stimulate more work sooner.)
  • Energy bills would be cut by almost $8 billion a year.
  • Energy savings schemes would drive about one-third of the potential jobs (about 43,000 FTE).

Some examples of low-hanging fruit energy upgrade opportunities considered in the report include:

  • Residential: heat-pump water heaters replacing electric-resistance units; thermal comfort upgrades such as insulation and weather sealing; replacement of halogen downlights with LEDs.
  • Commercial buildings: better lighting controls and rollout of LEDs; building HVAC controls; higher efficiency fan, compressor and pump systems (used by HVAC systems).
  • Industrial: installation of variable speed drives; fixing and minimising steam and compressed air leaks; and higher efficiency boilers.

The upgrade opportunities considered in the report fall a long way short of being exhaustive, with the opportunity from cost-effective energy efficiency upgrades likely to be noticeably larger than the options considered in the report.

Yet in spite of the limited scope of opportunities considered, the employment and energy savings are very large in terms of the overall energy sector and the decarbonisation task. For example, the amount of employment creation we’ve identified is larger than that involved in expanding renewable energy to 50% of our electricity supplies by 2030.

The reduction in gas consumption from residential energy efficiency measures considered in the report were equal to a quarter of the entire gas needs of Australia’s manufacturing sector. They were vastly greater than that available from any new gas fields being pursued for development on Australia’s east coast.

Energy efficiency needs to be urgently elevated to the top of the energy and climate change policy agenda for the sake of energy consumers and the environment, but also in the interests of growing employment.

Tristan Edis is director of analysis and advisory at Green Energy Markets, author of the report Energy Efficiency Employment in Australia and a member of the EcoGeneration editorial board.