Energy vulnerable vertical villages?

Energy vulnerable vertical villages?

Energy is the bedrock of modern life but are we high-risers too exposed?

Our vertical villages stand already accused of energy guzzling with claims that apartment living can consume 25 per cent more energy than detached dwelling living.  A large percentage of this goes to our dependence on air conditioning due to our floor to ceiling windows. Added to this, our common property – lifts, pools, gardens – also draw heavily on our purse with the energy used here accounting for up to 60 per cent of the total building’s energy consumption and 25 per cent of administrative fund levies.

While our energy consumption is, of course, a financial concern, perhaps more worryingly, we vertical villagers are now being discussed in terms of our energy vulnerability.  

Are we a “vulnerable group” in terms of energy? 

Let’s be a little pedantic and look at the meaning of vulnerable.

Coming from the Latin vulnerare (to wound) and from vulnus (a wound), being vulnerable can be about exposure to particular adversity and, in our case, being open to specific hurt (wounding) due to our energy arrangements.

According to the Group of Energy Efficiency Researchers (GEER), this is precisely what we of the vertical villages are – that is, exposed, susceptible and energy vulnerable.

And who is GEER to so deem us?

GEER is a group of research and industry members drawn from institutions across Australia which are concerned with the health, wellbeing and quality of life for people who are confronted by energy challenges such as affordability and sustainability.  (I must now disclose that I am a member of GEER and will be presenting in April at the IREE conference on improving residential energy efficiency.)

So, how are we vulnerable?

Consider the wide array of ways in which we vertical villagers might be wounded by our energy arrangements. 

Let’s start with thermal performance. A study by Melbourne University (2017) found many of Melbourne’s high-rise apartment blocks deficient in their thermal performance. In fact, without constant air conditioning for cooling, these apartments become “uninhabitable”. Compounding this, the frequency and length of heatwaves are expected to significantly increase (potentially tripling), as is Melbourne’s “heatwave amplitude” (i.e. the intensity of the hottest day of the hottest heatwave), so say researchers Herold, Ekstrom, Kala, Goldie and Evans (2018).  This means we will be cranking up our air conditioning even more, which leads us to another sore point – embedded energy networks and our ability to choose our energy provider.

Canstar Blue explains an embedded network as a contract between the building owners and an energy retailer for the latter to supply power to all of the properties in that development. Developers often opt for this arrangement as it is less expensive than installing individual meters. However, it also means that the option of switching electricity providers is not possible for individuals and can be extremely costly for the entire building.  

But perhaps we could seek help through the energy schemes offered by our governments such as the Victorian Government’s Solar Homes Package? 

Unfortunately, as vertical villagers, we do not “own” our roof, and this means that individually we do not qualify for these types schemes.  

Perhaps help might be more forthcoming from programs specifically aimed at vertical living, such as Smart Blocks and NABERS for Apartments.  

Disappointment again. 

Smart Blocks has slipped quietly away and, as for NABERS for Apartments, while most residential buildings which participated in the pilot have received their rating, little else has been forthcoming (i.e. how to improve these ratings). And logic dictates that without dedicated action to improve energy consumption, a building’s rating will likely be the same (or lower) next year – so why go to the bother of participating next round?

Yet hope springs external. 

There are emerging some very clever innovations for vertical dwellers. 

Take Solgami.  

These origami-style blinds hang inside a window and generate electricity as light reflects against the folds of the panel. The geometry of the design also allows more natural light inside, a point in its favour compared with the darkening effect of strong window tints.

According to Ben Berwick, the director of the Australia-based design firm Prevalent, the aim is to reposition cities (and specifically our vertical villages) as places of production rather than solely consumption. 

Naturally the amount of power generated will vary inline with window size, orientation (in this case, west is good!) and climate. 

And while Solgami is not yet commercially available, it is this type of multi-faceted approach where several issues are simultaneously dealt with (temperature, light and energy) that promise us a better path.  

In this way, we vertical villagers can become less energy vulnerable – but only if we are energised about our issues!

Janette Corcoran

Apartment living expert

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