Renovation is about more than just energy savings

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The French Renovons group has estimated that a national renovations plan would create 126,000 jobs and take 2.5m people out of energy poverty, while cutting health spending by €750m a year. [Georgios Karamanis / Flickr]

The multiple benefits of building renovation programmes include known advantages in terms of reduced energy bills and job creation. But less is known about other benefits like avoided healthcare costs, and even higher exam success rates for students, writes Adrian Joyce.

Adrian Joyce is Campaign Director at Renovate Europe, a network of industry groups, local authorities, trade unions and civil society organisations campaigning for an 80% reduction in energy consumption for the EU’s building stock by 2050.

One could be misled into believing that the major drive for energy renovation comes from policymakers wanting to create jobs, boost economic growth in society, increase energy security and improve health and well-being for their voters. Or at least from building engineers wanting to construct modern houses or homeowners wanting to pay lower energy bills.

In fact, other surprising actors have now started to take over the leadership. Recently, demand for increased energy renovation has come from doctors, prescribing home renovation to the fuel poor for respiratory diseases. It has come from health ministries aware of the domino effect of cold damp buildings on the hospitalisation needs of its citizens.

It has come from energy security experts warning of the high vulnerability of households to independence from imported gas. And it has come from school teachers and employers, wanting to increase the productivity and reduce the sick days of their students and workers.

Let’s take the doctors first. They are interested in improving the health of their patients and reducing patient appointments, so they have started prescribing energy renovations. To access Ireland’s Warmth and Wellbeing pilot scheme, patients must have a referral from their GP.

This entitles tenants over 55 years old (or under 12) who are suffering from chronic respiratory illnesses to free insulation. Between 700-800 home renovations are expected this year, and the benefits could be felt in liberating funds for more renovations.

Then there are the health ministries, wanting to reduce the healthcare system costs and hospitalisation numbers. As an EDF-Cemka-University of Warwick presentation put it recently, savings from fuel poverty initiatives “could ‘finance’ a significant part of the annualised investment cost of the renovation programme”.

The French Renovons group has estimated that a national renovations plan would create 126,000 jobs and take 2.5m people out of energy poverty, while cutting health spending by €750m a year for the fuel poor, and household energy bills by at least €512 per year. It could also eliminate six million tons of CO2 emissions every year. That is what “multiple benefits” look like in practice.

Then there are the energy security experts looking at the building sector through the prism of the Building stock Vulnerability Indicator (BVI). The BVI takes into account the size of gas consumption in the building sector, along with the dependence on imported gas and its routes diversity.

Renovations offer a lifeline to some of the most fuel-fragile economies in Europe, according to the recent BPIE study. Slovakia and Hungary face a “severe risk” – and Bulgaria a “substantial risk” – of not being able to heat their national building stocks.

But this could be mitigated by building renovations, which have the potential to reduce gas consumption in the buildings sector by 70% of current consumption levels within two decades. A renovation program on this scale might require an upfront investment of €81bn by all countries in the region, but it would lead to financial returns – in reduced energy bills alone – of €106bn.

And finally there are school teachers and employers. A comprehensive study for the Swedish Energy Agency last December showed annual energy bill savings of €880m, outdoor pollution reductions worth €210m, indoor pollution savings worth €170m, and a 15TWh cut in energy use if a coherent renovation strategy was implemented by 2030.

But what the teachers were interested in were the surprising results of a 3-4% rise in the number of students passing exams in reading and math, thanks to increased ventilation in school buildings, and a €110m windfall from a reduced prevalence of ‘sick buildings syndrome’. In one double-blind study published last year, the cognitive performances of workers in an enhanced green building environment were found to be 101% higher than in conventional buildings.

Energy renovations are not just about energy. Of course, they bring huge amounts of savings to utility bills – just as they slash greenhouse gas emissions – but building refurbishments can also have staggering and unexpected knock-on effects for our social, economic and personal lives. These multiple benefits are too often ignored when the calculus for energy efficiency projects is being toted, and that can leave policymakers in the dark.

The positive effects of energy renovation for society are numerous, and multi-layered. If doctors are prescribing building renovation as the solution to improving the health of their patients, why are politicians not acknowledging the societal benefits of energy renovation in the buildings legislation?

The cost-optimality analysis for buildings in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) is based on conventional economic aspects but does not take into account the societal benefits. Same for the Energy Efficiency Directive (EED), where the choice of the lowest energy efficiency target disregarded the multiple benefits demonstrated in the impact assessment of opting for a higher energy efficiency target.

The International Energy Agency has called for reconsideration of energy efficiency as “a mainstream tool for economic and social development”. Assessing the non-energy benefits that renovations bring in their wake should be the first step in this process.

The revision of both the EPBD and EED offer a window of opportunity to boost energy renovation through stronger national renovation strategies and a clear path to achieve a highly energy efficient NZEB building stock in the EU by 2050. More energy renovations would please doctors, health ministries, energy security experts, teachers and employers alike.