Saving energy on site, part 1

How 120 staff save equivalent emissions of 250 cars just by being at work

This post is the first in a series. As more are added, you’ll be able to find them here.

This is the office building at CSIRO in Newcastle. There are about 120 staff based here, and I’m typing from the top floor right now. It’s a pretty nice place to work – there’s plenty of natural light, big glass panes in the walls and part of the ceiling, gardens around the lunch area, and windows you can fling open in summer to let a cool breeze through. What’s interesting though is that while all these features may sound a bit posh – the sort of thing a fancy hotel might have in its foyer* – they’re actually sensible, non-expensive features that save energy (and hence costs) by cutting our air conditioning and lighting requirements. In fact, they’re so effective that our day-to-day CO2 savings, compared to an average office building of the same size, are are about the same as taking 250 cars off the roads.

There are about 250 cars in this photo. The CSIRO Newcastle site uses energy-saving features and on-site generation to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by roughly the same amount as you’d get by removing this many cars from the roads.

How it’s done is a mixture of good architecture, engineering, science and (much to the chagrin of some of our engineers) psychology. In next couple of posts I’ll take you through what’s behind it, including:

  • ‘passive’ energy saving features like ‘solar stairwells’
  • ‘active’ energy saving features like smart lighting control
  • on-site generation: solar panels, wind turbines and gas microturbines, and
  • psychological aspects, such as the finding that clever design can ‘trick’ people into feeling comfortable over a wider range of office temperatures – sneaky!

Why is it so important that buildings are energy efficient? It’s because residential and commercial buildings consume about 20% of the total energy used in Australia (source: ABARES 2011) and the energy used is increasing every year (NABERS). If we can cut this number by just a bit, it’s a huge overall saving in energy requirements, electricity costs and greenhouse gas emissions.

Here at CSIRO in Newcastle we’re lucky to work in buildings that are helping to make a difference in this way. One of the reasons they were designed like this is because it was considered fitting that the Energy Technology site should be a showcase for good energy practice and design. The whole site also effectively becomes a laboratory where our engineers can monitor what features are working, determine how much energy they’re saving, and trial new improved features.

Our CSIRO buildings, of course, aren’t perfect. The Newcastle site was opened in 2003 and designed to achieve a 5-star NABERS energy rating, but as equipment has aged and staff numbers have increased significantly, the rating has dropped to an estimated 4.5 stars for the offices (or 3.5 if you include the more energy-intensive laboratories and workshops). We’re in the process of a series of improvements now that will restore (and hopefully exceed) the original 5-star rating of the whole site.

In the meantime, the buildings are still reducing emissions equivalent to those 250 cars. Stay tuned to the blog to find out more in the coming weeks.

Find parts 2 to 5 of this series here.


* except for the openable windows. I’ve seen (pictures of) hotels with everything from spiral staircases to underwater rooms, but I can’t remember ever having been in a hotel foyer with open windows.

† A bit of background about how we got this number (skip this if you don’t care how we worked it out, but read on if you’re interested in seeing behind the curtain, so to speak):  The average office building in Australia has a NABERS energy efficiency rating of 2.5 stars, which means it generates up to 283 kg CO2-equivalent in greenhouse gases each year per square metre of lettable floor space. These emissions stem mainly from the fact that in NSW most of our grid electricity comes from power plants that run on fossil fuel, resulting in an average of 0.9 kg CO2to be generated for every kWh of electricity used (source: Australian Green House Office). Our whole site, including labs, offices and workshops which are 7930 m2 in total, would therefore emit 2244 tonnes of CO2 if it were of ‘average’ office design. (Still with me? You get a treat for reading this far.) But in the last few years our grid energy usage has only been around 1400 MWh per year, equivalent to about 1260 tonnes CO2. (We use an extra 250 MWh on top of this which comes from our on-site generation – solar panels and so forth – so it doesn’t cause emissions and isn’t counted here.) That means that even counting our more energy-intensive labs, we’re saving just under 1000 tonnes CO2 per year – and, since the average Australian car travels about 15,000 km per year emitting about 4 tonnes of CO2 (RAC, CSIRO), that’s roughly equivalent to about 190 cars. Voila – that wasn’t so bad, was it?


Find parts 2 to 5 of this series here.

One Comment on “Saving energy on site, part 1”

  1. Oona says:

    The Novotel at Olympic Park in Sydney has opening windows. When you open the window the aircon shuts off. The idea is that there are only about 80-100 days a year in Sydney’s temperate climate which require heating or cooling. It’s getting old though, built for the 2000 Olympics.

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