Cold? Worried about high winter energy bills? Concerned about climate change? Quick, turn on your air conditioner.
That's the argument Tim Forcey, an energy advisor with University of Melbourne Energy Institute, makes in a report published a few years ago titled Switching Off Gas.
Forcey writes that people living in up to one million homes across eastern Australia can save hundreds of dollars each winter with one easy action. 'They need to turn on their existing reverse-cycle air conditioner heat pumps and turn off their gas.' It's that simple.
How does it work? While many Australians still think of air conditioners as machines for cooling, in other countries they're used for heating, and they're called 'heat pumps'.
Standard electric heaters turn roughly one unit of electricity into one unit of heat. So they're about 100 per cent efficient. A reverse cycle air conditioner, however, uses electricity to 'pump' heat from one place to another. And it's incredibly efficient at doing so — the ratio can be one unit of electricity to four or five units of heat. So they can be 400, 500 or even 600 per cent efficient.
Hot water heat pumps work in the same way. When a household has both, the savings — environmental and economic — can be substantial. In 2014, the Grattan Institute found a typical home in Melbourne could save over $1000 a year by switching from gas to efficient electric appliances for heating, hot water and cooking. In Sydney it was over $600, and in Adelaide over $500.
The same year, the Alternative Technology Association analysed the cost of gas versus efficient electric appliances for six different housing types across the east-coast grid — that's South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria, New South Wales, ACT and Queensland.
Energy analyst Kate Leslie, who worked on the report, says switching from gas to efficient electric appliances was more economic everywhere they looked. 'And that was mainly due to the efficiency of reverse cycle air conditioners.'
"What about renters? Or vulnerable groups in slum suburbs? Or pensioners? Students? They either can't afford the upfront costs or don't have permission to make large alterations to their houses. The clean tech transition is wonderful, but it's leaving many such people behind."
But what if there's an electricity price rise? Another ATA energy analyst, Keiran Price, is working on an updated report comparing the costs of gas vs electric appliances and solar power. He says a price rise is likely but still probably wouldn't outweigh the efficiency gains of heat pump technology. 'From an economic point of view, even if electricity is more expensive per unit, it's still worth switching.' Plus, if a household has solar, then you can run a heat pump hot water system when the sun is shining, tapping into cheap and clean electricity. This should make getting off gas even more cost-effective.
Gas used to be pitched as a 'cleaner' fuel, but that's no longer the case — and, once again, reverse air con plays a role. A second ATA report, published in January 2015, found switching from gas to efficient electric appliances produced less greenhouse gas emissions in most cases and for most households across Australia. Even in Victoria, where power stations burn a dirtier type of coal than in New South Wales or Queensland, it reduced emissions by 26 per cent.
The big reason? You guessed it: heat pump technology. Using electricity from the grid creates more pollution than burning gas in your home, but the electric reverse cycle air conditioner is so efficient it's still less damaging overall. That's great news for households with air con, but galling for anyone who can't afford one, or isn't allowed to install it. Which includes me. I'm a renter.
I recently switched off gas, aiming to reap the financial savings and reduce my climate pollution. Telling Origin Energy to get stuffed was enough to keep me feeling warm and fuzzy for a few weeks, but even that fond memory can't maintain a toasty inner glow all winter. I need a proper heater. So I did some research, and learned that heat pumps are a technological marvel, but that other forms of electric heating are comparatively crap — doing the calculations, it looks like my emissions will go up by switching from gas to an electric fan heater.
I also learned that portable air conditioners, the kind that don't need a landlord's permission for installation, are pretty terrible, and don't even have energy star ratings or minimum efficiency standards. The only ones that do — dual-duct models — generally aren't sold in Australia. On Whirlpool forums, renters describe jerry-rigging their own versions in desperation. It's another example of how clean, green and efficient technologies still aren't accessible to everyone. This is a massive injustice in the making.
As climate change escalates, and our energy system buckles under the strain of more extreme storms and rapidly changing technology, property owners can turn to solar power, batteries and super-efficient air con to keep their homes cosy and their bills manageable. But what about renters? Or vulnerable groups in slum suburbs? Or pensioners? Students? They either can't afford the upfront costs or don't have permission to make large alterations to their houses. The clean tech transition is wonderful, but it's leaving many such people behind.
This winter, if you have a reverse cycle air conditioner, use it for heating. Get off gas — it's now a waste of money — and install solar. Take advantage of the fact you can lock in lower bills and reduce your emissions for years to come. I wish I could confidently make the same recommendation for renters, but once again, they're left out in the cold.
Greg Foyster is a Melbourne writer and the author of the book Changing Gears.
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