Unlocking the energy saving potential of the continent’s ageing building stock will be “absolutely central” to a key review of EU policy this summer, the EU’s top energy efficiency official has said.

But Paul Hodson, the head of the EU’s energy efficiency unit, flagged "micro" public action as the way forward, dampening hopes of major policy advances in the review which will stock-take progress towards meeting 2020 energy saving goals and mull 2030 objectives.

The paper will now be published in July, during the EU’s summer vacation period.  

Speaking at the Brussels launch of an International Energy Agency (IEA) buildings efficiency roadmap, Hodson said that calibrating the “optimum combination” of technologies would be key to the review.

This could involve a Christmas stocking of measures aimed at “increasing the facility of building renewables, district heating and [maximising] zero-carbon electricity coming from remote sources, and fueling things like heat pumps,” he said.

But Hodson hinted that a fine-tuning of existing measures was more likely than a Cartesian policy thrust. “What I think is problematic is that energy efficiency is only small stuff,” he said. “There are no big things that anybody can do.”

“It is a bit difficult in a world resistant to public action," he added. "That is something we need to take into account when designing these measures.”

Key sections of the 2012 Energy Efficiency Directive requiring the refurbishment of public buildings and energy savings obligations were watered down, during protracted negotiations between EU states.

Yet the IEA’s ‘Technology Roadmap for energy efficient building envelopes’ says that if global warming is to be contained to 2 degrees Celsius, more than 40% of the energy savings expected from heating and cooling energy demand by 2050 will come from the buildings sector.

That would be equivalent to the entire current energy consumption of the United Kingdom.

2030 climate and energy package

Hopes were dashed that the Commission might point a way towards realising this ambition in the 2030 climate and energy package last month. But several new efficiency endeavours that could affect the buildings sector should be unveiled later this year.

A review of Eco-design and Eco-labelling measures could extend labelling schemes to energy-related products such as windows, for example.

New guidelines are also due out before 2015 to clarify the meaning of a requirement in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive that all EU states make new buildings ‘nearly zero-energy’ by 2021.  

Hodson suggested that a focus on consumer behaviour might be preferable to imposing new obligations on member states, pinpointing poor public finances as a stumbling block.

Energy saving “neither can nor should be done with public money except at the margins,” he said. “It can’t be done with public money because there isn’t enough. It shouldn’t be done with public money because the private benefit is so vast.”

However, the IEA’s roadmap outlines a shopping list of measures that governments could take to benefit their populations, such as:

  • Funding competitive research and development for critical technologies such as well-insulating and dynamic windows
  • Establishing or developing incentives for very high-performance products and deep renovations
  • Providing seed funding to help establish test infrastructure and building code mechanisms
  • Funding collaborative international research to help new technologies reach maturity
  • Providing sunset incentives and promotion efforts for reallocating resources to the areas with the greatest energy saving potential

Deep renovations

Speaking at the same Brussels IEA conference, Oliver Rapf, the executive director of the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE) said that it was a mistake to consider efficiency improvements in the construction sector solely from a short-term profit and loss perspective.

“There is a myth that energy efficiency impacts are only valuable if they pay back in cost savings,” he said. “This is the wrong approach as Europe’s building stock is in utter need of deep renovation.”

As well as the climate benefit accruing from widespread refurbishments, poorly insulated and damp buildings had a public health cost in the residential sector, as well as affecting children being taught in sub-standard schools, he said.

However, to force all buildings renovations to be deep would be “an extremely strong public policy,” Hodson cautioned.

“You need to prove [the necessity for] it before you force all the public sector to go down that road,” he said.