Rod Oram tells his personal story of making his house and his car as carbon neutral as possible, with upsides and downsides along the way

Opinion: As a consumer, can you benefit now from the clean tech revolutions underway in housing and cars?

Or will you have to wait until businesses have put much more innovation into their technologies, products, business models and strategies; and government devises programmes and policies to help drive such deep change?

Yes, you can enjoy the benefits today; and the benefits only get better, more accessible, and more affordable in both sectors as time goes by. But for now, you still need to be an enthusiastic early adopter, as I’ve learnt from personal experience over the past 15 years.

For the revolutions in housing and cars to gain real momentum, our businesses and government have still a massive amount of work to do. Hopefully a trigger for both will be the government’s release of its Emissions Reduction Plan May 31. 

If they’re looking for examples for how to do clean cars well, Norway’s success with EVs is the best; if they’re looking for a cautionary tale of a disastrous programme for retrofitting houses for energy efficiency, the UK’s recent experience is a shocker.

Here’s a taste of the upside of both revolutions, based on my family’s experience. Over the past 15 years, we’ve more than halved the energy consumption of our home and turned it into a net zero energy house. It generates more energy from its photovoltaic panels than we use to heat, light and power the house and charge one car.

Over the same time our car story has run from V6s, to smaller petrol engines, then a hybrid (which we later converted into a plug-in hybrid for four years), and then the purchase of our first EV six years ago. It and our now old hybrid are pleasant and cheap cars to run.

The economic analysis of both long term projects is a little complicated. Thus, once we’d completed the investment in both house and cars and had gained some running cost data in 2016, I asked Mercury Energy if one of its financial analysts could crunch the numbers to establish our likely return on investment.

The result was highly variable: a six-year payback on our cars; 17 years on solar hot water heating; 23 years on our PV panels; and 31 years on our double glazing, increased insulation and other energy efficiency measures.

Crucially, though, such purely financial analysis doesn’t account for the physical benefits. Our home is much warmer, quieter, better lit, cheaper to run with zero emissions than it was.

Thus, in all our transitions to a clean economy, we have to ensure we measure all relevant factors so we can make the best decisions that deliver co-benefits. Using only a narrow range of purely financial data will likely give us at least inadequate answers, or worse the wrong ones.

For example, our house is almost 80 years old. We didn’t want to bowl it and build a new one because it was one of the first to be built in our area in the 1940s. Previous owners had retained much of its character. We greatly enjoy the house and wanted to save this bit of heritage, while bringing it up to the best of modern standards.

But renovation also made economic and environmental sense. Often upgrading an existing building results in a much lower carbon footprint than demolishing and building new. One example, is this building under reconstruction at the University of Auckland.

Often upgrading an existing building results in a much lower carbon footprint than demolishing and building new, as with this building under reconstruction at the University of Auckland. Photo: Jasmax

Renovating an old home while you live in it is always a bit of a mission. It only gets harder when you have goals beyond the sector’s status quo and you want to adopt newish technologies to achieve them. I ended up being more of a project manager than I’d expected, thankfully, though, drawing on the knowledge and enthusiasm of equally keen people in the sector. Here are a few highlights along the way:

► We began in 2008 by replumbing our house and renovating our bathrooms. I was determined to put solar hot water heating on the roof. Our plumber Ian McDermond was less keen. But knowing a growing number of dairy farmers were putting such systems on their sheds, I found a good supplier in the Waikato. Ian liked it so much, he put one on his workshop roof as a demo. Eager customers included Remuera homeowners wanting to heat their swimming pools.

The two panels on our roof cut our electricity bill for domestic water heating by one-third. At the time, thanks to the Green Party’s agreement with the Clark Labour Government, EECA was offering small subsidies to stimulate such domestic upgrades. The cash contribution made our short-term loan for the $7,500 project interest free.

So, in the ERP from government and in business strategies that flow from it, let’s see more of such small incentives to nudge behaviour change and technology adoption.

► We continued our big renovation project in 2013 by hiring an energy efficiency expert, Jo Woods, to do an energy audit of our house. Jo and her partner Shay Brazier were working on their own Zero Energy home at the time.

The audit showed the house was an energy guzzler, consuming some 16,000 kWh a year of which some 60 percent was the kWh equivalent of the gas we burnt in our hot air central heating system. That of course, also generated considerable CO2.

Jo recommended a suite of renovations that would get us to net zero energy and zero emission. The main elements were heat pumps, double glazing to replace single in our existing aluminium joinery, rebuilding the end-of-life roof so it could take 20 PV panels and much more insulation, and LED lighting.

We got a pleasant surprise when we took the old roof off. We discovered the house’s frame was kauri, and its exterior wall panels were steel reinforced concrete with a stucco cement finish. How the developer, who named the street after himself, got such steel and concrete during the war was probably a secret best taken to the grave with him. Anyway, 80 years later we’re still the beneficiaries. The concrete panels have good thermal mass, so they are relatively energy efficient.

On completion of the project, John Constable, our architect who designed the new roof, gave us a memento: a splendid, large pepper grinder a friend of his had turned from an off cut of the kauri. It reminds us daily of the durability and beauty of that native timber.

The PV system on the roof, from Solar City, cost us $28,000 for 20 panels that generate some 6,000 kWh of electricity a year. When we installed them in 2014, battery storage was very expensive. Instead, we export our surplus electricity to the grid, and buy back when we need it.

The PV system on the roof.

In those early days of home generation/export, we had to tediously submit an export invoice each month to Meridian, our gentailer. They did become user-friendly, but by then we switched to our current retailer Ecotricity, because its electricity is certified carbon neutral. Thus our home is genuinely zero emissions.

Since we installed ours, PVs have become more efficient and cheaper, as has battery storage. Moreover ownership, leasing and other financial models have evolved to improve the attraction of PVs. Still, as early adopters of a trouble-free system we have enjoyed the benefit of ours for almost eight years and counting.

Our home’s energy efficiency is comparable to best practice examples such as the BRANZ Waitakere NOW home.

With just two of us at home these, days, we consume barely 5,000 kWh a year, versus 16,000 kWh equivalent for three people pre-renovation. In the depth of winter we heat the house for less than $3 a day. In addition, we draw about 1,250 kwh to run one EV.

Now comes the next test. Will that investment and superior performance make our house more sellable? We’ll find out soon because we’ve just put it on the market. We’re empty-nesters, heading to a downtown apartment.

But our low carbon story continues. We’re moving into a 1960s building repurposed from offices to apartments. The developer, the consulting engineers, and the contractors have worked hard to measure and reduce the carbon footprint.

Our journey to cleaner cars began in 2007 when I traded in my V6 Toyota Camry for a 2004 Prius, achieving a 60 percent reduction in fuel consumption thanks to its then-groundbreaking hybrid technology.

By 2012, though, I was itching for an EV. Tesla had just launched its first four-door, the S. But it was wildly expensive and not available here. It looked as though EVS would take a long time to become more affordable and available.

So instead of waiting, I decided to turn my Prius into a plug-in hybrid by buying an electronics kit from California and batteries from China for $12,500; and an automotive engineering friend installed them for me.

The Prius conversion

Thanks to charging the extra batteries from the mains, I could run the Prius for some 60km around town almost entirely on battery power. On a longer journey at motorway speed, they halved fuel consumption to about 2.25 litres per 100km before the extra batteries had done their dash and the car reverted to just its own hybrid battery and to about 4.5l per 100km.

Meanwhile in 2014, Mitsubishi launched the first plug-in hybrid in New Zealand, the Outlander. It was a big advance but it cost $70,000; and it was a bigger vehicle than I needed so I still believed in my Prius conversion. The current Outlander model is down to $60,000, with double the battery range.

To accompany the Prius, we bought our first EV in February 2016. It is a 2012 Nissan Leaf Gen 2, and we still have it.

When Tesla launched its 3 model in April 2016, I was one of 325,000 people around the world who put down US$1,000 in the first two weeks to secure a place in the order queue.

But I’d lost interest by May 2019 when Tesla invited me to “configure my order” for NZ delivery. Lots of other makers were starting to offer good EVs; I’d concluded Elon Musk was not a fit person to run a publicly-listed company; and although prices were falling, a new EV was still beyond my budget. So Tesla reimbursed my US$1,000.

By 2018, I decided to decommission the extra batteries in the Prius and revert the car to its factory mode. By constantly topping up the car’s hybrid battery, they were shortening its life. The batteries went to a friend who had replaced the diesel auxiliary engine in his sailing catamaran and replaced it with an electric motor.

And by now I had a new goal: keep my Prius running until 2025 when New Zealand, hopefully will get its first fuel emissions standards, one of the last OECD countries to do so. By then my Prius will have been beating that proposed standard for 21 years – that’s how slack we still are as a country of fossil fuel emissions and efficiency.

I have an extra incentive to keep the Prius until then. On New Year’s Eve, the dashboard warning lights lit up like a Christmas tree. Sure enough, the hybrid battery was knackered because of the extra strain I’d put on it. I’d fallen far short of the 300,000km some taxi drivers have told me they have on their Gen II Prius with the original hybrid battery.

The good news was the price of a genuine Toyota replacement had fallen markedly over the years and was now only $1,750. So, in fuel efficiency and speed terms, the car is 10 years younger.

So, yep, I did get carried away a bit on modifying the Prius. I made some suboptimal choices on DIY, and under-estimated how quickly EVs would evolve and become cheaper. But it was fun and fascinating, if a bit costly.

Now we are perfectly happy to keep our middle-aged Leaf and elderly Prius for, say, another three years. By then, the extensive range of new EVs are likely to be price-comparable to fossil fuel cars, as this analysis from Bloomberg NEF reported last year.

Estimated pre-tax retail prices for C segment vehicles in Europe

Note: Includes only passenger cars. Source: BloombergNEF

If you’re in the market for a car now, this useful online calculator by EECA and Drive Electric makes total-cost-of-ownership (buying plus running costs) comparisons for a very wide range of models.

So, drawing on this experience over the past 15 years, here are a few broad themes about our transition to a zero emission, zero waste economy:

► Have fun now learning about, adopting and reaping the benefits from emerging technologies.

► Likely, you’ll make some good and bad financial decisions, but you’ll gain other benefits from both. On balance, hopefully, you’ll come out ahead.

► It’s a great waste of money and resources to bin everything and rely entirely on the new. Many things can be repurposed, reused, rejuvenated, recycled or restored.

► Business and government need to make it much easier and more practical for consumers to do that. And apply the same principles for their own activities.

One way or another, join the revolution.

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