Efficiency, Renewables

Tipping point for Australia’s spiralling air-conditioning costs

Experts predict Australia’s air-conditioning costs will surpass $12 billion in 2023, sparking calls for a new approach to cooling and heating buildings efficiently, writes EcoGeneration editor Gavin Dennett.

Australian citizens and businesses are set to pay more for air-conditioning in 2023 than ever before. Experts are warning that due to rising energy costs, extreme weather events, increased working from home, and outdated air-conditioning units, expenses for cooling and heating buildings are skyrocketing.

Air-conditioning comprises 15 per cent of the total power generated in Australia, and Sam Ringwaldt, CEO and co-founder of Melbourne-based climate tech startup Conry Tech, estimates power bills for cooling and heating in Australia will exceed $12.4 billion in 2023 – a significant rise of $2.5 billion from 2020.

During this four-year period, Australian air-conditioning consumption has risen from 36,750,000MWh to an estimated 40,000,000MWh. In 2016, this figure was 30,000,000MWh.

“Air-conditioning is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere,” he says. “It is all around us, in virtually every building in Australia, yet we never read about it, talk about it, think about it, or begin to question it – unless it’s not working.

“However, this year may be a tipping point. Australians could spend more money on air-con energy bills than ever before, and there are several reasons why: energy prices have spiked, more people are working from home, and El Niño is set to return in 2023, meaning our air-con units will be on constantly, costing us more than ever.”

Ringwaldt says the spike in air-conditioning costs is a reminder of the huge collective energy consumption required to keep Australians cool.

“It’s a useful moment to remind us that air-con is bad for the planet,” he says. “The energy use of air-conditioning units worldwide is astronomical. It has made architects, developers and city planners lazy.

“They can build anything anywhere, regardless of the building design, use and environment because they know the miracle of air-con will make their buildings comfortable. As consumers adopt electric vehicles and manufacturers embrace the circular economy and sustainable best practice, the built environment still lags a long way behind.

“We cannot ignore the air-con issue and continue accepting the status quo of an industry that has barely changed in 100 years. Many homes and office spaces are using air-con units that are veritable dinosaurs that use more energy than they need, cost more than they should and only perform efficiently on the hottest day of the year.

“If we created air-con today with a blank sheet of paper, we would surely do it differently and do it better. The world is getting better at ripping up and replacing old and outdated ways of doing things. As nations transition from fossil fuels to renewables, and people swap their petrol cars for EVs, surely the days of bad air-con are numbered.”

On average, energy consumed from heating and cooling in a commercial building accounts for 60 per cent of its total energy use.

“The impacts of climate change mean we all need to adapt and evolve to a zero-emissions agenda,” says Alison Scotland, executive director, Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council.

As Australia transitions to a renewable energy grid, electrifying our buildings will be the fastest and cheapest pathway to reducing emissions.

“Installing an efficient air-conditioner plays its part in electrifying your home or business, but improving the energy performance of your building is an essential first step. Energy efficient buildings require less energy to cool in summer and heat in winter, meaning you need to use less energy in the first place.

“Australian Sustainable Built Environment Council wants all Australians to have healthy and comfortable homes, offices and buildings that use less energy and support Australia’s achievement of net-zero emissions. Having an energy efficient air-conditioner operating optimally helps make this happen.”

Energy efficient tips for keeping cool

  • Don’t touch the thermostat. For every degree a thermostat is raised or lowered, it can increase heating or cooling bills by about five per cent. In a typical workplace environment, most people are comfortable between 21°C and 23°C. Traditional air-conditioning units use more energy if they are instructed to change the temperature of a room regularly compared to maintaining a comfortable temperature.
  • If using a fan to cool an area, consider using a lower spin setting. Typically, the highest speed setting on a fan will use a disproportionately large amount of energy compared to a medium setting.
  • Check thermostat location. Be aware a thermostat might not read the room temperature correctly if it is in direct sunlight or near heat-radiating equipment such as refrigerators.
  • Poorly maintained heating, ventilation and air-conditioning equipment can increase its energy consumption by up to 30 per cent. On residential split systems, lift the front cover, and wash dust out of filters under a tap, then reinsert them when dry.
  • People, electronics, direct sunlight and artificial lighting all generate heat so think of how to optimise your space, maximise the use of daylight, and get as much heating, cooling and ventilation as possible from natural sources.
  • Turning down the thermostat as low as it can go doesn’t speed up the cooling of your property. Turning it up very high won’t heat it faster, either. This practice increases energy bills due to overcooling or overheating so just “set and forget”.
  • Every extra star on an air-conditioning unit can reduce running costs by up to 10 per cent.
  • Keep doors, windows and vents closed when air-conditioning is running so the unit doesn’t have to work as hard.

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