The message about efficient energy use is slowly getting through to owners of businesses, buildings and houses – but there’s a long way to go.

No matter the heavy rhetoric from those in the industry about the obvious benefits of clean energy, it’s still the case most of us blithely consume as much electricity as we feel like regardless of where it comes from. The first step to solving the energy crunch is to use only what you need – and then seek out clean supply. But having all grown up on cheap, endless supply, it’s hard to adjust your thinking.

Very simply, this is the nut that needs to be cracked. If Australians took energy use as seriously as they do the cricket results or what’s up next on Netflix, the national grid would breathe a long sigh of relief. Change is coming slowly, however, as proponents patiently explain to householders or business owners one easy way to make money is to not spend it on utility bills.

In the case of the serious energy users in commerce and industry, solar PV is appearing on more and more rooftops as the falling cost of behind-the-meter generation makes it an easy capex decision. Big savings aren’t as simple as integrating that new supply into operations. It pays to know how you use energy – and many managers don’t.

In the dark on data

If a business understands its usage and has smoothed its load as much as it can, it will demand less from the grid and benefit accordingly, says Dani Alexander, research principal at the Institute for Sustainable Futures at the University of Technology, Sydney. However, when researchers looked at a sample of Australian businesses with stated sustainable objectives to find how energy used and sometimes generated on site could be optimised, “we realised the data we were getting from those businesses wasn’t consistent or comprehensive enough to provide recommendations,” she says.

More work is needed in helping users understand the dynamics of their energy use before the message can get through that there are ways to manage it (and claw back some power from the gen-tailer giants). “Energy is not the business of those businesses,” Alexander says, speaking at an Energy Lab panel discussion on smart buildings and energy data hosted by UTS in early August.

Plenty of owners of residential solar PV have no idea how their systems are operating.

In the suburbs

Rooftop solar arrays are a common sight in the suburbs, but there is still plenty that’s mysterious about energy use to those homeowners. Renate Egan, co-founder and chair of Solar Analytics, says her experience has led her to roughly conclude there is usually one energy nerd in every household. That matters to Solar Analytics, which sells monitoring software that can measure a solar system’s performance, flag problems (sometimes with appliances), offer tips on how to get value out of a system and look at load profile to work out the best size for a battery.

Monitoring software delivers plenty of smarts to system owners, but how much do they care? When Solar Analytics tested whether the way data is presented made much difference to clients it found that child-like illustrative methods of communication resonated with some users far more powerfully than techy-looking data streams.

“It was fascinating to have gone through that behavioural piece to understand different people and how they engage with energy,” Egan says. “Engagement with energy is probably [the market’s] biggest problem.”

Solar Analytics monitoring is fitted to about 30,000 of the more than 2 million residential systems in Australia.

Keep cool

When energy costs are predicted to make up more than half the costs in a business, entrepreneurs at start-up stage will be deluded if they don’t think far ahead about serious efficiency measures. It’s easier said than done, especially when you’re establishing and operating a portfolio of energy-hungry data centres around the country.

Two of NextDC’s data centres have continuous grid loads of more than 10MW, chief operating officer Simon Cooper tells EcoGeneration, but they were designed in such a way that efficiencies are triggered at high load levels. For about half the year in Melbourne, for example, Cooper says air temperature conditions are sufficient to pre-cool the chilled water from the data hall before it goes into the chillers.

“[The facility manager in the Melbourne centre] has seen the equivalent of 6MW of cooling achieved through radiators we use when the air temperature is low enough, completely without the requirements of the chillers,” he says. Air flows within the data hall are another opportunity for savings. “If we get the air flows correct – not too fast and not too slow.”

NextDC operates nine facilities in Australia and its Melbourne and Sydney sites have achieved 5-star NABERS energy efficiency ratings, the culmination of an arduous but satisfying mission for Cooper.

A tough task

The NABERS process is rigorous and lengthy, he says. Before the 12-month data collection period starts a business must met an examiner’s stringent requirements for accuracy in measurement systems, and when everything is up and running it’s a case of monitoring and making fine adjustments. “You’ve got to be consistent,” he says. “Every day you’ve not tuned your facility is a negative impact on your overall result.”

Cooper admires the rigour in the NABERS standard, where data is collected every hour of every day to ensure “an honest view” of how a building has performed over a year. NextDC designed and built its “generation one” data centre against the NABERS benchmark and has completed yet-to-be-certified “generation two” centres.

If business owners are serious about energy efficiency and emissions reduction targets they must decide on a trusted certification standard and methodology. Pretenders are only wasting their time. “You won’t get to where you need to be – or you’ll be called out.”

Boards have historically looked at power cost as just another line item that needs to be adjusted for CPI each year, Cooper says, when it should be seen as an opportunity to put sentiment into action. “It’s hard, but that’s where you get internal focus and ideas,” he says. “Facing it head on is the most important thing.”

NextDC started early. The company installed a 400kW solar system on its Melbourne data centre in 2012 and was part of the 14-member Melbourne Renewable Energy Project finalised in 2017 that supported an 80MW wind farm in Victoria.

Just build it

Rising cost means energy is now “a CFO topic, not just a facilities topic,” says Hudson Worsley, co-founder and director of Presync, an energy consultant to the property sector, and former head of sustainability at Stockland’s residential business. Still, the message is hard to hammer home in the building business.

Hudson recounts qualitative research he conducted for a sustainable housing initiative by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage. Of the two-hour interviews he conducted with 10 of Sydney’s biggest-volume homebuilders, not one mentioned “smart homes” or energy data. It’s frustrating, he says. “Where energy has been historically very cheap, and the climate is temperate, you get [ambivalence],” he says. “Where it’s cold, and if you get the thermostat [setting] wrong grandma dies, you have a stronger imperative to get this stuff right.”

Instead of residential properties built by a randomly selected assemblage of unrelated tradespeople all choosing materials and appliances that don’t, or can’t, share data with each other – or the grid –Hudson sees better energy outcomes for “manufactured” homes, designed and assembled in sections in a factory by one operator. An example is Japanese company Sekisui House, which makes about 30,000 net-zero residences a year.

Builders might see the wind shift when Climate-KIC’s ARENA-funded study of Frasers Fairwater housing development in Blacktown, Sydney, is released in a couple of years’ time. The development includes ground-source heat pumps in 800 homes to reduce peak demand from air-conditioning. “[Network services provider] Endeavour Energy has come to the table with great interest,” says Hudson, adding extra sensors to its local zone substation to understand peak load profile.

As word spreads, and savings accumulate in purses and on balance sheets around the country, it won’t be long until energy is as popular as whatever it is everyone’s rushing home to watch on their laptops these days.