Digitising Australia's buildings is key to tackling net zero

Schneider Electric

Thursday, 01 February, 2024

Digitising Australia's buildings is key to tackling net zero

Businesses around the world are continuing to focus on sustainability in the race to net zero carbon emissions, and building construction and operations are critical areas where Australia can make significant contributions.

With approximately 37% of global emissions coming from buildings, our corporate built environment presents low-hanging fruit to combat climate change while also reducing costs by driving down energy consumption.

“Buildings are major contributors to global emissions, meaning that they are holding back progress to the climate crisis that we are trying to tackle. We need to rethink the way we are designing and operating our buildings now if we have any hope of reaching our 2050 target for net zero,” said Louise Monger, Vice President of Digital Buildings at Schneider Electric.

The world is currently dealing with two crises: an energy crisis that has escalated over the past five years and the climate crisis, which has been occurring for quite some time.

“Wasted energy in buildings is significant at almost one-third of energy consumption. Heating and cooling commercial buildings when they are empty is a prime example. Automating energy management improves efficiency and reduces energy use and therefore cost, as well as contributing carbon emission reduction,” continued Monger.

The switch to more energy efficient buildings has begun with increasing acknowledgment of its benefits and importance. How Australia constructs, operates and maintains buildings must change rapidly to meet net-zero targets and mandatory reporting requirements coming into effect in Australia in 2024.

To address net zero targets and create more efficient buildings, owners and operators must address a building’s carbon composition, 30% of all buildings contain embodied carbon, meaning it was created at the time of construction. The remaining 70% is operational carbon that includes carbon from fossil fuels, inefficient building operations and non-renewable sources.

“Reviewing a building’s carbon footprint, enables owners and operators to eliminate waste within their buildings. Digital monitoring technology makes it possible to identify areas in the building where, how and why waste is happening,” added Monger.

Aside from the operational desire for smarter buildings, global energy costs are a major factor as to why Australians and others around the world, are pivoting towards green building infrastructure design — prioritising sustainability over functionality. With sustainable business practices, you get both.

“Just as we saw with the pandemic accelerating Australia’s digital transformation, we are now seeing rising global energy costs drive a similar impact on sustainability,” said Monger.

Electricity is a clean energy that can transform the world’s buildings in several ways. Electrical heat pumps can be up to four times more efficient than traditional furnaces that run on fossil fuels. Meanwhile, microgrids that run on renewables can power buildings cleanly with greater resilience.

Designing buildings to operate efficiently also opens opportunities for energy autonomy with microgrids that can contribute significantly to net-zero buildings. However, the most immediate impact on reducing emissions comes from existing buildings, where retrofits using the latest digital technology and monitoring systems can cut energy use by about a third: i.e., eliminating the waste.

“Investing in modernising existing buildings to be more sustainable can transform an entire city by significantly reducing energy consumption and waste,” says Monger.

According to Monger, the three main sectors that are set to see dramatic changes in the commercial building space over the next five years include retail, healthcare and real estate, with changes already underway.

The real estate industry is seeing significant transformation as it moves from smart buildings to smart portfolios, five years ago the sector was focussed on making the smartest buildings with the latest technology, however without a consistent approach and architecture it becomes difficult to manage.”

The sector is focusing on data aggregation so that it can effectively manage the relationship between the building owner, manager and occupant. Breaking down these silos has been a large factor in the transition to smart portfolios that will drive these operations.

There is a great opportunity for operators of petrol stations, retail chains and supermarkets to better understand their environmental footprint and energy usage, particularly with the high traffic these retail spaces have and how widely dispersed premises can be.

“Given the size of Australia and how far and widespread our retail is, retailers need to begin thinking about how they can manage and control their assets remotely. Applying IoT and connected devices has the power to drive efficiency across geographically dispersed portfolios,” added Monger.

In the healthcare space, all-electric hospitals, supported by integrated digital systems will be the biggest enabler to help the industry in the race to net zero.

“We are already seeing a huge shift to sustainability across the healthcare industry, so much so that it is catching up to real estate and other areas that have been on this journey for a considerably longer period of time,” concluded Monger.

In the next two years, it is essential that healthcare facilities develop strategies for electrification and digitalisation. Not only will this enable more flexibility and resilient services, but technology can be leveraged to improve patient experience as well as staff productivity and sustainability.

If Australia is going to achieve net zero, the time is now to change the way Australia constructs, operates and maintains buildings. Australia must look at switching to clean and renewable energy sources to meet targets.

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