Climate change is leading to an increased frequency and severity of heat waves. Spells of several consecutive days of unusually high temperatures have led to increased mortality rates for the more vulnerable in the community. The problem is compounded by the escalating energy costs and increasing peak electrical demand as people become more reliant on air conditioning. Domestic air conditioning is the primary determinant of peak power demand which has been a major driver of higher electricity costs.
This report presents the findings of multidisciplinary research which develops a national framework to evaluate the potential impacts of heat waves. It presents a technical, social and economic approach to adapt Australian residential buildings to ameliorate the impact of heat waves in the community and reduce the risk of its adverse outcomes.
Through the development of a methodology for estimating the impact of global warming on key weather parameters in 2030 and 2050, it is possible to re-evaluate the size and anticipated energy consumption of air conditioners in future years for various climate zones in Australia. Over the coming decades it is likely that mainland Australia will require more cooling than heating. While in some parts the total electricity usage for heating and cooling may remain unchanged, there is an overall significant increase in peak electricity demand, likely to further drive electricity prices.
Through monitoring groups of households in South Australia, New South Wales and Queensland, the impact of heat waves on both thermal comfort sensation and energy consumption for air conditioning has been evaluated. The results show that households are likely to be able to tolerate slightly increased temperature levels indoors during periods of high outside temperatures.
The research identified that household electricity costs are likely to rise above what is currently projected due to the impact of climate change. Through a number of regulatory changes to both household design and air conditioners, this impact can be minimised. A number of proposed retrofit and design measures are provided, which can readily reduce electricity usage for cooling at minimal cost to the household.
Using a number of social research instruments, it is evident that households are willing to change behaviour rather than to spend money. Those on lower income and elderly individuals are the least able to afford the use of air conditioning and should be a priority for interventions and assistance. Increasing community awareness of cost-effective strategies to manage comfort and health during heat waves is a high priority recommended action.
Overall, the research showed that a combined approach including behaviour change, dwelling modification and improved air conditioner selection can readily adapt Australian households to the impact of heat waves, reducing the risk of heat related deaths and household energy costs.
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