February 14, 2022

Environment

The future of homes is electric

By Saul Griffith
Image of a house with solar panels in Queensland. Image via Kgbo / Wikimedia Commons

Image via Kgbo / Wikimedia Commons

Adapting our households to lock in climate-friendly behaviour is easier than you might think

Australians love their castles. Generations of economists have hyperventilated about our “over-investment” in property, and millions of metres of newspaper columns have fretted over whether we have too much debt, not enough debt, too many renters, not enough renters, and whether we should live in more high-rise or less, but it doesn’t seem to alter our desire to put down roots and furnish the result with a pizza oven, coffee maker and giant televisions. We build the biggest homes in the world. It is unclear whether we should be proud. We apparently all “need” air-conditioning and other luxuries of the modern world, including massive garages and a media room. In those garages, on the street outside and even up on cinder blocks in our front yards are Australia’s other obsession: our cars, utes, trucks, vans and four-wheel drives. Similarly huge amounts of newspaper space are dedicated to which car is best, whether best value, highest performance, most nostalgic or most bogan. They are growing in size, just like our houses, and they are all starting to look strangely similar.

Of the decisions we make around our kitchen tables, the daily ones we make about our castles and cars have the greatest impact on the climate. Decades of environmental advice to reduce, reuse and recycle have only had a tiny influence. The key thing to understand is that a small number of infrequent decisions determine what your actual climate impact is. These decisions are about what is on your roof (solar or not), what is in your garage (electric vehicles or not), what is in your kitchen (electric cooking or not), what is in your basement or alongside your house (electric heating and electric hot water or not), and whether you have a battery (or not). These are things you buy once every 10 years, not every day, and once you have bought them they become the infrastructure of your life. If you make the right choices (electrification), they lock in climate-friendly behaviour, every day. If you haven’t made these big decisions, then the only climate impact you can have is small, and frustratingly spread across thousands of small purchasing decisions. Which of these cans of tinned tuna is better for the planet?

Wise governments should be meeting the voters in their homes with climate and energy policy that helps us to improve our castles and cars. Focus on the infrastructure of our daily lives as we help with every household’s journey to electrification and getting to zero emissions. It needs to be a national project, not a culture war. The technologies are basically ready now, and this transition can be extremely good for Australians. We get more bang for our emissions buck with early reductions, and we could lead the world in residential electrification, which is why we should do this proactively as a nation, starting yesterday. Also, it’ll save you money, your kids will be healthier, and the air and water in your community will be cleaner.


Households represent the biggest chunk of emissions in our domestic economy: 42 per cent. We can then break down these emissions into household activities. What may be surprising to some is that our vehicles are responsible for the largest portion of household emissions, closely followed by electricity use, since most large Australian electricity grids are still powered primarily with coal and gas. Overall, energy emissions are about 79 per cent of household emissions, followed by agriculture (what we eat) at 17 per cent. Potentially surprising is how little solid waste (rubbish) contributes to our emissions. Waste reduction is an area frequently championed by large corporations – perhaps because they can be confident that no one likes rubbish, so it’s an easier way to market their green credentials than reforming their supply chains. Seeing our household emissions laid out like this makes it abundantly clear that we need to decarbonise our electricity generation, our transport and our gas appliances – all with urgency.

I’m focusing on the home because it is tangible, but our commercial sector (our small businesses, retail and commercial buildings) have very similar energy-use patterns and machinery. The recipe for decarbonising our castles also applies to most of the commercial sector, which means the low-hanging fruit of another 29 per cent of our domestic emissions, or 71 per cent in total.

The average Australian home spends about $5000 a year on energy use, which includes about $3000 on vehicle fuels, $600 on gas and $1600 on electricity, with small amounts spent on wood, too. Keep in mind that this is the mythical “average” house, with about 2.6 people and 1.8 cars, so a house with five people and three cars could easily spend far more than this – as they say, “your mileage may vary”. Five thousand dollars a year is a significant chunk of money, and it’s even more significant for lower-income householders (the bottom 20 per cent), who spend nearly twice as much of their pay cheque on energy as the top income quintile (the top 20 per cent). These are costs which, with the right government action spurring the right public–private partnerships and investments, could be practically eliminated over the next three to five years with the savings from home electrification. This might sound like an exaggeration, but it is not. The cost of energy will fall, lowering the cost to operate your house and your car(s), but the cost of owning the cars and the machines will drop too, making the savings bigger than your total spend on petrol, gas and electricity today. Perhaps the biggest incentive for Australians to take action on climate change is the hip-pocket savings that are waiting for us if we do. We have so much sunshine, and renewable technology has dropped in price so much, that climate action has become an economically advantageous move.


Energy use in an average Australian household breaks down into a few categories: space heating and cooling, water heating, cooking, vehicles and “other” appliances (which are mostly electric already) – these include fridges, dishwashers, washing machines, dryers, computers, phone chargers and lawn mowers. The majority of total energy use in current households goes to fuelling cars, which consume about 69 per cent of the energy in an average home. Space heating is the second-largest consumer of energy, with 11 per cent of total energy use. Water heating, with 8 per cent of total energy use, and cooking, with 2 per cent, are the other main contributors.

So much of what we hear about climate change is about sacrifice: driving less, taking shorter showers and so on. Maybe we paint this picture for ourselves because of our inherent tendency to be scared of what we have to lose. Maybe the fossil-fuel companies have successfully persuaded us that a future without them will be less joyful. But it is now clear that an electrified future will be a far more abundant and comfortable future for all of us. An electrified household – in all its climate-saving, money-saving glory – is easier to imagine than some might think. It simply replaces any existing fossil-fuel devices, like gas water heaters and petrol cars, with modern, efficient electric versions. It makes the most of Australia’s abundant sunshine by having solar on the roof (something 30 per cent of Australians already have) and a back-up battery in the garage to store the cheap energy being made on the roof. Modern electrified appliances are significantly more efficient than their fossil-fuel counterparts, so not only does an electrified home reduce emissions, but it also significantly reduces energy use and therefore ongoing energy costs.

I hope this feels astonishing to you; it certainly does to me. When we compare the final energy use of a conventional home to a renewably electrified home, the efficiency benefits of electrification become abundantly clear. With the same conveniences, size, warmth and vehicles as a currently fossil-fuelled home, electrifying the average Australian home would cut total energy use by more than half! From 102 kWh per day today, to only 37 kWh tomorrow. This is an enormous win. If we also seal the air gaps in our notoriously inefficient homes (you know there is a draft coming in from somewhere…), if we insulate our walls, ceilings and windows, the cost will drop even further. Half the energy for the same comfort, and the majority of emissions gone overnight, all at lower weekly costs. Of course there are numerous other benefits, like safer indoor air quality, not needing to visit a petrol station each week, a battery to get us through blackouts and more.

This may seem too good to be true, or counterintuitive, but remember: electric vehicles use around one third of the energy of their fossil counterparts. Electric heating also saves energy, as does electric cooking. The other invisible win is not needing all the waste energy generated when making our electricity with coal or gas. This nirvana is enabled by renewables.

 

This is an edited extract of Saul Griffith’s The Big Switch: Australia’s Electric Future, published by Black Inc.

Saul Griffith

Saul Griffith is an Australian engineer and inventor. He’s been a principal investigator on research projects for NASA, Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy, the National Science Foundation and US Special Operations Command.

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