The ALP’s announcement of a $300 million incentive to householders to invest in Greenhouse-friendly technologies might have preempted similar announcements from the Government in next week’s Budget, but what does it mean in practical terms?

According to the Australian Greenhouse Office, Australian households contributed 9% (or 51.8 million tons) of the nation’s Greenhouse emissions in 2004, which can be broken down as follows:

Travel, personal: 23%
Travel, work: 11%
Clothes washing and drying, dishwashing, cooking: 5%
Lights: 5%
Wastes: 5%
Water heating: 16%
Home heating and cooling: 11%
Fridge and freezer: 9%
Electronic and other appliances: 15%

Brad Shone, energy policy manager at the Alternative Technology Association, says that targeting water heating alone can have a huge impact on a home’s energy use. His calculations show:

  • Replacing an electric hot water system with electricity-boosted solar hot water equals a saving of 5 tonnes GHG per year with a system cost of $3800.
  • Replacing electric hot water with gas-boosted hot water equals a saving of 9.5 tonnes, at a cost of around the $5000 mark.

If, for argument’s sake, we multiply that out across the 200,000 homes mentioned in Rudd’s plan, we come up with relative Greenhouse gas savings of 1 million tonnes and 1.9 million tonnes per year. Like Malcolm Turnbull’s light globes, that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for politicians.

The report is less bullish on solar electricity, possibly because the initial costs are higher. Shone points out that $10,000 will buy a 1 to 1.5 kilowatt system, including the $4000 worth of rebates available. In Victoria (with the dirtiest energy in Australia in terms of Greenhouse gas emissions per unit of electricity) this would lead to approximately 2.2 to 2.5 tonnes savings per year, and provide between 10% and 40% of a home’s electricity consumption.

With the same system in Queensland, the figures for emissions are much the same, with the extra generation from more sunshine off-set by the less greenhouse intensive electricity it is displacing; however, the system would produce a larger portion of a typical home’s total consumption.

Yet Robert Foster from Energy Efficient Strategies says well-targeted, low-tech and cheap investments can make a big difference.

“Photovoltaics are pretty s-xy sorts of things, but, in fact, they are not all that good in terms of value for money. There are other strategies that are. Fitting ceiling insulation would offer a far greater cost benefit than installing PVs,” Foster told Crikey.

“There are about 8 million homes in Australia. Probably about 20-30% of houses don’t have ceiling insulation. That’s in the order of a couple of million households. To insulate the ceiling of a house might cost $1000, and provides an immediate and long-lasting impact on heating and cooling. So why not pick the low-hanging fruit first?

“Like a lot of things that come out before an election, there is a lot of work to do on these plans,” says Foster. “When they crunch the numbers, they will probably find they need to focus the plan on just a few areas because that’s where they’ll get the biggest bang for their buck. I hope that’s how any government would operate.”