A clearer view of Australia’s commercial building stock

A new national report on energy consumption of buildings has revealed that Australia’s commercial building stock is almost double what was previously thought – and offers important signposts for the journey towards net zero.

The 2022 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Baseline Study, published by the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW), provides a comprehensive, national-scale representation of the non-residential building stock by type and energy consumption.

Philip Harrington from Strategy. Policy. Research., who led the development of the report, notes that the 2022 study represents a major revision and enhancement of the original baseline study, published in 2012.

“New satellite and aerial imagery, along with other techniques, has given us the first-ever definitive and comprehensive count of all non-residential buildings, resolved at a fine scale (85 SA4 regions), across the whole of Australia,” says Harrington.

“At the end of FY2022, for example, just over one million non-residential buildings were standing. This means that future commercial and policy studies can now be based on high-confidence estimates of building numbers in different parts of the country.

“Overall, the study gives the industry, and Australia more generally, a solid basis to understand the non-residential building stock and its energy use and emissions. Its findings and data tables can be used freely by the industry to make evidence-based cases for policy and regulatory reform, for example, or to illustrate the potential for the sector to contribute further to meeting Australia’s emission-reduction goals.”

Key findings

This new, more accurate view of the commercial building stock reveals that there is much more non-residential building floor area standing across Australia than was previously understood – almost double past estimates.

“What this means,” says Harrington, “is that many factors – the potential for energy and emissions savings, the scale of the challenge in realising those savings, the impacts (costs and benefits) of code and other policy changes – are all larger than previously understood.”

Harrington adds that at the same time, the amount of energy being used by this larger-than-previously-understood building stock – and therefore the operational greenhouse gas emissions – has not changed, as this has always been established top-down from national energy consumption statistics.

“This implies that the average non-residential building is somewhat less energy- and emissions-intensive than previously understood,” he says.

Construction in the spotlight

Another major finding of the study is that more square metres of new buildings are being built each year than previously understood – over 17 million new square metres of gross floor area in FY2021, despite COVID impacts.

“Also, we now have a clear picture of the make-up of that new building work,” says Harrington. “It reveals, for example, the rather unexpected result that over 27 per cent of all new building floor area built in Australia since FY2012 has been warehouses. Retail comes in a distant second at just under 11 per cent – well less than half the new floor area of warehouses – while offices come in third, at just over 10 per cent.

“Again, these findings have implications in many domains – new policy development and even social policy. For example, we note that health-related facilities and aged-care facilities only accounted for around 3 per cent of the new floor area each.”

Sustainable progress

According to the study, non-residential buildings are on average getting more energy-efficient at the rate of 2 per cent per year, well above previous estimates. In another first, the study provides robust estimates of average fuel intensities, resolved down to 15 building types and 85 regions.

It also shows that greenhouse gas emissions attributable to the non-residential sector fell by almost 23 per cent between FY2012 and FY2020 – the most recent year for which national emissions estimates were then available.

Harrington says that the key take-outs for the HVAC&R industry are that the work the sector does matters greatly to Australia’s national energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“In FY2020, the sector used just under 24 per cent of all electricity produced in Australia,” says Harrington, “along with 40PJ of natural gas, contributing just under 47 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, or just under 10 per cent of total emissions in that year.

“While this study focuses on ‘baseline’ attributes, rather than the potential to further reduce energy use and emissions, this potential is very large and, in most cases, also cost-effective. The challenge I see is not at the premium end of the market, but how to engage with the owners, managers and tenants of the vast numbers of non-premium buildings across Australia, to get them actively participating in energy and emissions savings.”

The full report is available at the website.

Photo by Josh Calabrese on Unsplash

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