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New insights could transform how we think about energy-efficient buildings

“If you can change the temperatures of a building by a tiny degree [without affecting the overall experiences of the building occupants] and save that much in energy, imagine the global impact that would have.”

In May – June 2021, BehaviourWorks Australia (BWA) undertook field trials to provide key behavioural insights for Monash University’s Microgrid Electricity Market Operator (MEMO) ‘toolbox’ – a suite of interactive resources developed to support the Victorian Government’s Microgrid Demonstration Initiative.


The trials tested how two different heating and cooling strategies would impact building occupants’ experiences working and studying within Monash’s Clayton Campus buildings.


Conventional management of buildings’ heating and cool systems assumes a narrow range of internal temperatures to be most comfortable for its occupants. This requires a high demand for energy throughout the day, which includes peak energy hours. The alternative to this is ‘load-shifting’, a method of shifting energy demands to other times of the day. Our trials tested the behavioural response to ‘load-shifting’ and of widening the range of a buildings’ internal temperatures without affecting the comfort of its occupants. The idea behind this is that it allows the university to understand how much of the energy used within buildings can be maximised from green energy produced by its microgrid, rather than continuing to rely on the national grid.


However, sitting down with BWA Research Fellow, Dr Fraser Tull, who co-led the field trials, we asked what the implications of these findings could mean for our overall understanding of building design, management, and sustainability beyond the Monash-based project.  “It’s hard to create positive change when people are adversely affected, but when you can show you can actually change things … that means we can make positive changes that are sustainable for both people and the planet. That’s… cool!”

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Figure 1: Comfort levels at baseline (wave 1) and during the trial period (wave 2) 

 


With only minute notable differences in occupants’ comfort levels observed during the trial period, this could be significant for sustainable development and our understanding of energy efficiency, as a difference of as little as 1°C could save up to 10% of energy usage. Dr Tull says, “Think about all of the factors contributing to climate change, heating and cooling has a significant role to play and so if we can change things by a small percent, the cumulative impact can be huge.”


Dr Fraser Tull hopes that key lessons from these field trials can provide behavioural insights for future microgrid projects, however, also believes in the current impact these findings can have on other non-residential settings, especially, if improving energy-efficiency of buildings could be as easy as a 2°C turn of the dial.


To read more about our field trials, click here for the final report.

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