The energy efficiency labelling of household boilers - those used for water or space heating - has been under discussion for seven years, but recently came back into the spotlight.
The European Parliament gave its final green light last week to the energy efficiency directive, spelling out ways of cutting the EU's energy use by 20% by the end of the decade.
While measures listed in the directive itself are estimated to achieve 15% energy savings overall, other complementary measures are expected to deliver on the remaining 5%.
Among those complementary measures are new energy labels for household heating boilers, which are expected to achieve savings of around 2%.
But the efficiency labelling of those household appliances, which would appear uncontroversial at first, has led to a heated exchange between green campaigners and EU Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger.
Oettinger has recently delayed the adoption of new labelling rules for boilers, triggering accusations that he caved in to pressure from the European Heating Industry Association (EHI).
"Unfortunately it seems that the highest level of the European Commission wilted under industry pressure, with EHI’s concerns being relayed from the top," said Stephane Arditi, who leads the Coolproducts campaign, a coalition of environmental NGOs from across Europe.
At stake in the debate is whether European households should be encouraged to switch from oil and natural gas to renewable energy or electricity for their heating needs.
Traditional boilers run on fossil fuels and fall under two categories - standard heating oil boilers and condensing boilers.
Condensing gas boilers, which are the most efficient, are already used in about 10% of EU households and in most countries their installation is encouraged by financial incentives like tax breaks. This leaves a vast majority of households equipped with less efficient non-condensing gas boilers, which currently cover 89% of EU households. Heat pumps represent a mere 1%, according to EHI - although the European Heat Pump Association puts this figure at 5%.
Under the proposed new labelling rules, traditional boilers would only get a maximum 'A' ranking on a scale from 'A++' to 'G', which is an indication of their efficiency and CO2 footprint.
Only the completely fossil fuel-free heat pumps could be ranked 'A+' or 'A++'. Traditional 'A' class boilers would still be allowed to keep their green colour, but manufacturers do not see this as a reasonable compromise, because, in 2017, a new 'A+++' category will be introduced that will push those boilers below the 'A' category, causing them to lose their green label.
Traditional boiler manufacturers would like to be protected from this by the creation of a double labelling scheme - one 'A+' ranking for the traditional boiler category and one general ranking, where they would reach a maximum 'A' ranking.
"This could be greenwashing, it is unacceptable to have a double label which says that fossil-fuel boilers are A+, like renewable energy boilers," Arditi said.
Oettinger under fire
In its effort to draw up new standards for the energy labelling of boilers, the European Commission organised consultations with representatives from the industry, consumer organisations, NGOs and energy experts.
Discussions were expected to be wrapped up before the 2012 summer break, but were delayed on 28 June by Oettinger, who sent a letter to negotiating stakeholders the day before the standard was supposed to be voted.
"There was a meeting on 6 September with all stakeholders and he [commissioner Oettinger] stressed above all the argument that some German lobbyists were not happy with the Commission's proposal of the labelling of the boilers," said Green MEP Claude Turmes, who negotiated the Energy Efficiency Directive on behalf of the European Parliament.
One industry source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said German manufacturer Bosch was instrumental in convincing Oettinger to withhold the decision.
Asked about the reasons for delaying the legislation, Oettinger's spokeswoman, Marlene Holzner, told EurActiv that the stakeholder consultation on the energy labelling of heaters and boilers ended in August. She said the Commission has kept all the concerned parties informed, consulting a selection of them again in September, and will continued do so "as the proposal develops".
"There are a number of industry, consumer and environmental associations involved. These associations have differing views on aspects of the proposals," Holzner told EurActiv. She added that the remaining steps are the adoption of the energy labelling proposals by the Commission and a vote on the ecodesign proposals in a regulatory committee composed of member state representatives.
Germany is the main manufacturer of traditional boilers, which includes the more efficient condensing gas boilers. According to EHI's figures, Germany produces 60% of all boilers, Italy 20%, while Britain, France and the Netherlands share the remaining 15%.
EHI and Eurofuel – a supplier of EHI member companies – were the only organisations at the table of 23 stakeholders that voted against the compromise proposal tabled by the Commission, EurActiv has learned.
The compromise was "balanced", Arditi said, adding that the single label will create an incentive for the market take-up of the most efficient renewable energy systems and will also enable clear differentiation between products on the EU market.
Laura Degallaix, secretary-general of the European environmental organisation for standardisation, ECOS, said all stakeholders were "very unhappy" with the commissioner's decision to keep the file open because the August proposal they had agreed on was "already a compromise".
"Unfortunately, there has been last-minute lobbying from the traditional boiler industry," Degallaix said. The explanation by Oettinger's cabinet was that, after years of discussion, the decision could wait for another couple of months, she said.
"I don't know why he reacted so strongly. He seemed to be very supportive of the traditional boilers industry," said Degallaix. "He said he was personally worried that if the traditional boilers were not labelled good enough, low-income consumers would try to fix their old, inefficient boiler instead".
According to Degallaix, Oettinger was also unclear about the timeline. "He got very upset with every comment he received on governance aspects," she said.
Contacted by EurActiv, EHI said it was also concerned about the delays in the process. But it considers that "until now a satisfactory compromise could not be reached in the best interests of all involved (manufacturing industry, consumers, installers)".
"We are hopeful that the European Commission will still propose a final text on both ecodesign and energy labelling in the course of this year," EHI said.
Efficient, but unaffordable?
A central argument of boiler manufacturers is that heat pumps are unaffordable for most consumers. Also, traditional boilers have developed a technology called condensing gas boilers, which makes old models much more efficient.
They fear the new labelling would effectively kill the industry, according to the NGOs who tool part to stakeholders meetings.
For traditional non-condensing boilers, consumers have to pay between €1,500 and €3,000. Condensing boilers cost about €5,000, whilst heat pumps can cost as much as €20,000, EHI says. The organisation also claims a return on investment is much shorter for condensing gas boilers than for renewable heat pumps.
Indeed, old boilers have an efficiency of around 50% and the condensing gas boilers can reach a maximum efficiency of 81% - although some different sources put this figure at 98%. Heat pumps, however, have an efficiency rating of over 130%.
Arditi, who leads the Coolproducts campaign, said that making it easier for the poorest to buy the least efficient products is the best way to reinforce fuel poverty.
"Affordability could be better addressed through tailored loans for the most vulnerable households and through building retrofitting obligations/incentives for the landlords," Arditi said.
Arditi claims that prices could drop if there will be more demand for heat pumps and if there will be a clear differentiation in the efficiency of boilers. With energy prices rising, he added, heat pumps could become more attractive due to their independence from fossil fuels or gas.