Sydney’s geography favours the wealthy. Nothing new there. But last week’s heatwave exacerbated the division between east and west and raised concerns about energy consumption.
With ocean glimpses unaffordable, most of us live away from ocean breezes in the demographic heartland near Liverpool or Parramatta. Our eastern Sydney cousins may complain about 35-degree “heatwaves” but for us, anything less than 40 degrees in the summer is mild. After six days of 42-degree heat, the fridge went on strike and the kids’ paddle pops turned to mush. Technology doesn’t like extremes.
The cheapest and most-populated Sydney housing is in the north and south-west, and it’s the city’s most unsustainable and energy-guzzling.
Which bureaucrat decided it was OK to release land in shrinking blocks to hold bloated castles without eaves or trees and with only minuscule backyards? When the neighbouring bricks of jostling houses are only metres apart, there’s only room for radiant heat, and none for cooling.
Few neighbourhoods in western Sydney have enough large shade trees. Natural shade, backyards and privacy have been sacrificed on the altar of the affordable sprawling McMansion with few people in it.
The modern castle has no protection from the sun. It can only stay liveable with ”climate-control” blocking out the real world.
Such planning mistakes have compounded with every land release, burdening the community with higher electricity loads and confining individuals to what was once the province of a sterile office. We increasingly live in a claustrophobic, windows-closed environment, in our cars and in our homes.
In any extreme weather, summer or winter, we get energy spikes. The obscene waste leads to rolling blackouts – ironically in the areas which are more sustainable – and ultimately those on modest incomes face crippling electricity bills.
Australia is one of the most scientifically literate cultures on Earth – the number of our science Nobel laureates is out of proportion to our population – yet we are lacking in logic and our complex tiers of government stymies coherent housing and sustainability plans. We get planning paralysis masked by pretence of action.
To get back to the science: it’s simple. What energy resource do we have above all else? The sun.
Yet those who can least afford roof-top solar panels are those with the most amount of sun and heat in the western suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne and in the regions.
Professor Andrew Blakers, the director of the centre for sustainable energy and solar energy systems at the Australian National University, says Germany does it better, and it has only 60 per cent of our sunshine.
“Roughly speaking, Australia installed about 200 megawatts of photo-voltaic solar cells in 2010 at a cost of about $1.2 billion,” he says. “Germany did about 5000 megawatts at a cost of about $25 billion.”
He says in Adelaide and Alice Springs the power from solar panels on roofs is cheaper than getting it from the grid, and that will be the case for everyone by 2014.
We should install solar panels at government expense on all rooftops where air-conditioning and heating systems overload the power grid. We should put them on every school, shopping centre and car park – anywhere with a large roof.
After centuries of dealing with climate extremes, we have lost the art of cooling ourselves and our houses naturally.
Our grandparents understood the basics of airflow, radiant heat and opening warm or cold parts of the house, depending on the season. They could cope with the heat and the cold; external louvres or shutters helped in the summer, and in winter they stuck to one warm room.
Now, unless it’s at the push of a button, people are bereft of ideas. Just as the GPS has the potential to kill navigation skills, air-conditioning can kill an experienced attitude to the weather rather than a fearful one.
Sydney has a desalination plant; surely it can do something with solar. All the unending waffle about the carbon emissions tax and the ephemeral idea of carbon credits seems hypocritical when we have the solution beaming down, and not only being wasted but making us burn coal to cope with it.
Christine Rau is a freelance journalist.