Insulating future generations

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Four weeks ago I wrote a piece for Mountain Scene on the importance for our tourism and future wellbeing of reducing our carbon footprint.

There are, of course, several ways we may do this, from more efficient vehicles, to solar water heating, low-energy lighting, substitution of solar and wind power for fossil fuels, biodiesel, hydrogen fuel cells, forestation and others.

According to Swedish energy company Vattenfall, the most cost-effective approach by far to energy efficiency and reducing our impact on climate change is to improve the insulation of our homes and commercial buildings.
Through savings on our power bills, expenditures on insulation – pink batts in ceilings, walls and under floors – can pay for them­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­selves in three to five years, and double-glazing in five to 10 years.

I have been struck by the absence of insulation in many of our older homes. For new homes, New Zealand’s recently upgraded insulation requirements are well below recommendations released this year by the US Department of Energy for winter locations similar to our lakes district, eg, R3.3 for ceilings in Zone 3 (the South Island) compared with R6.7-R10.5 (attics) and R5.3-R6.7 (cathedral ceilings) in the US.

I have also been struck by the minimal insulation in new commercial buildings, particularly single rather than double-glazing.

In addition to reduced energy consumption and power bills, insulated homes are warmer, less drafty and healthier, resulting in fewer illnesses, especially of children and the elderly.

We may reflect that at peak demand this past winter, up to 25 per cent of the South Island’s power requirements came from the North Island. The fossil-fuelled plants at Huntly (coal) and Whirinaki (diesel) were running at full capacity. It should be a no-brainer for public policy to encourage – really encourage – better insulation of our buildings.

Our Government, however, has been strong on rhetoric to save energy but weak on real incentives. Many retired homeowners in our lakes district would consider an investment in insulation unattractive without cash incentives.

Owners of rental properties are also reluctant to improve insulation because they don’t pay the power bills.

Recognising that the Wakatipu is colder in winter than much of the South Island, Queenstown Lakes District Council should initiate an insulation programme. It would involve (a) establishing district-wide standards for insulating new and existing homes (higher than the Zone 3 standard), and (b) a cash rebate for retrofitting existing homes.

Specifically, for existing houses and units the program could offer a 50 per cent rebate ($1 for every $1 spent) – up to, say, $2000, for new or additional insulation meeting QLDC standards in ceilings, walls, and under floors, and up to $5000 for double-glazing.

In addition, it may offer a 30 per cent rebate on the cost of installing a heat pump. QLDC or a designated local entity would work closely with insulation contractors and promote the rebate programme to homeowners.

For commercial buildings, the QLDC should ask the Govern­ment to allow accelerated depreciation for insulation (meeting QLDC standards) and double-glazing.

To fund the program, QLDC should seek access to the Government’s $1 billion insulation fund, or another source like a remission of our GST.

It could be presented as a grass-roots, community-driven pilot programme that is economically viable,
environmentally sound and offers substantial health benefits.

It would also provide jobs.

Not least, the programme would lighten our carbon footprint.

Lake Hayes property owner Ralph Hanan is a former World Bank economist