Australia's not so paw-fect energy future

Australia's trend towards "humanising" their pets could impact energy demands and usage across the next 30 years and beyond.

Australia’s trend towards “humanising” their pets has the potential to impact energy demands and usage between now and 2050, researchers at Monash and RMIT universities have found.

Studies exploring smart home, household comfort and mobile media technologies have found that a growing number of people are leaving air-conditioners, heaters, televisions and other entertainment devices on for their pets – even when their human guardians are out of the house.

While the energy impacts of these practices are currently relatively small, lead researcher Associate Professor Yolande Strengers from Monash University’s Faculty of Information Technology said that they have several potential implications for energy demand forecasting and smart technology innovations.

“If the majority of Australian homes are thermally regulated for both animals and humans in the future, or if stay-at-home pets have extra heating and cooling demand during the day, this could contribute to a flattening of peak electricity demand and/or a possible increase in average daily demand,” Associate Professor Strengers said.

“This scenario may not only play out amongst affluent households, but also increase the energy bills of low-income households stuck living in poor quality, thermally inefficient homes and wanting to protect the health of their pets in extreme heat or cold.

“The rising proportion of families turning to apartment-style living where pets don’t have access to cooler outdoor spaces in summer is also likely to exacerbate this issue.”

Associate Professor Strengers alongside Professor Sarah Pink, Dr Larissa Nicholls and other colleagues from RMIT have conducted more than 10 studies with around 300 Australian households about how their daily practices influence energy demand.

While none of the studies specifically focused on pets, dogs and cats regularly came up in conversation with householders when discussing ways of heating and cooling their home, and keeping their pets ‘entertained’ or providing them with companionship during the day.

“For example, one household installed an air conditioner in an uninsulated garage where their dogs spent a large amount of time. Other households left the air conditioner on specifically for pets when at work or going out in the evening,” Dr Nicholls said.

From these studies, the researchers developed a speculative ‘stay-at-home pets’ future scenario which assumed that providing heating, cooling and home entertainment for pets would be commonplace by 2050. They identified some potential implications of this scenario for the energy sector, and residential energy demand forecasting.

“The example of pets is particularly pertinent because it introduces a new and unpredictable variable that hasn’t been considered in previous future energy modelling. While the question of how people will use energy for their pets in the future is impossible to know, evidence to date suggests that pet care will increasingly involve more technology and energy demand,” Professor Pink said.

Australia has one of the highest pet ownership rates in the world (62%), with around 5.7 million households having one or more pets, including dogs, cats, fish, birds, small mammals and reptiles. Almost two in five households have dogs (38%) while cats are the preferred pet in 29% of Australian homes.

Pet care is a booming global business. Across the world, pets are becomingly increasingly humanised with owners taking their dogs and cats to grooming salons; developing online games and apps for pets; buying gourmet meats and treats, as well as fashion accessories and heated mats for the cooler months.

Australian households spent more than $12 billion on pet products and services in 2015 – a jump of 42% since 2013 – with around $7 billion spent on dogs alone. Emerging markets, such as pet wearables (internet enabled devices to monitor and care for pets) are now worth close to $3 billion annually.

While the research does not make specific recommendations about how households should care for their pets, Associate Professor Strengers said it opens up new ways of thinking about and responding to energy futures, and the kinds of needs and desires households may have.

“The scenario helps us think about innovative policies and programs to support pet care and energy issues related to the home,” Associate Professor Strengers said.

“Designing and building thermally-efficient housing is clearly very important. But we could also be thinking about more creative opportunities to support and intervene in this scenario, such as safe and secure ways for pets to access inside and outside areas through emerging technologies like automated pet doors.”