Housing renovation plan will be ‘flagship’ of European Green Deal

“The Green Deal could mean lower energy bills for better and more comfortable houses. Everybody wins,” said Frans Timmermans, the EU's incoming Commission VP for the European Green Deal, during his confirmation hearing in the European Parliament. [© European Union 2019 - Source : EP]

A housing renovation programme, aimed at reducing energy consumption of buildings, will be “one of the flagships” of the upcoming European Green Deal that will be unveiled by the European Commission next month, an EU official has said.

“From our perspective it’s clear that if we want to go to a decarbonised economy by 2050, the heating sector will have to make a very important contribution,” said Robert Nuij, an official in the European Commission’s energy directorate.

“One of the flagships of the new Commission will be an action on building renovation,” Nuij told a EURACTIV event on Thursday (21 November).

Buildings – including household boilers and heaters – are responsible for 40% of the EU’s total energy consumption, making them one of the biggest contributors to global warming emissions in Europe.

But it is still unclear at this stage what measures will be included in the package, the official cautioned.

“What is clear is that the focus will have to be on increasing renovation rates of buildings and increasing the changeover of old heating technologies towards new decarbonised heating technologies,” Nuij said.

The building renovation programme was first announced last month by incoming EU Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans during his confirmation hearing in the European Parliament.

EU and national authorities should join forces and consider “large renovation projects” in order to “pay for insulation or double-glazing for example,” the Dutchman told MEPs.

Funding from the European Investment Bank (EIB), which recently overhauled its energy lending policy, could also be mobilised “to ensure residents don’t have to find tens of thousands of euros upfront – which they simply don’t have,” Timmermans suggested.

“With initiatives like this, the Green Deal could mean lower energy bills for better and more comfortable houses. Everybody wins,” the Dutchman said.

As it happened: Frans Timmermans's hearing in EU Parliament

The European Parliament is grilling the proposed members of Ursula von der Leyen’s Commission in a series of regular hearings between 30 September and 8 October. Dutchman Frans Timmermans will be last under the spotlight.

Cost: the main barrier

Barriers currently preventing consumers from switching to cleaner heating systems are well-known, and chiefly economic.

Cost is the biggest factor for most consumers in choosing a new heating system, according to an opinion poll by Savanta ComRes, published on Thursday (21 November). Cost of monthly bills usually comes on top, followed by the cost of installation, according to the survey, which spanned 13 EU countries.

That said, consumers are also driven by environmental considerations, especially in countries like France, Italy and Germany. Asked about their willingness to switch to greener heating systems, 82% mentioned solar power as their preferred alternative, followed by natural gas (59%) and geothermal power (58%).

But environmental considerations are never more important than cost, found the survey commissioned by Eurogas, an industry association which also supported the EURACTIV event.

“The poll demonstrated that citizens want to play a role in fighting climate change,” said James Watson, secretary general of Eurogas. “When it comes to heating, Europeans want environmental gains, costs savings and user-friendly appliances. They also want governments and companies to play their part through offering incentives to change heating systems and providing more information on the options that are available,” he said.

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Energy poverty

According to Monique Goyens, director general of EU consumer organisation BEUC, “energy poverty is at the centre of this debate”.

To decarbonise the heating sector, energy efficiency and building renovation “are no brainers,” she said, calling for a “massive housing renovation programme” to cut energy consumption from buildings.

But governments have to nudge people into changing heating system, with financial support such as tax incentives and subsidies, otherwise they simply won’t do it, Goyens stressed.

“The energy transition has to be people-centred,” agreed Federica Sabbati, from the European Heating Industry (EHI), a trade group bringing together manufacturers of heating systems running on solar, gas and biomass.

“The first big step that is still not being made” towards climate-neutrality is “the modernisation of buildings,” Sabbati said. “And I think here we need to talk about the decarbonisation of buildings and not just heating,” she pointed out, underlining that the energy performance of buildings also depends on things like insulation and the type of energy infrastructure.

Turning to heating as such, she said installers should focus more of the attention. “We don’t go to the supermarket to buy a heating system, we rely on a technician,” Sabatti remarked, saying installers are at the same time “the gateway and the roadblock” to greener heating.

Energy poverty hinders EU push to end regulated electricity prices

The European Commission has renewed its push to phase out regulated electricity prices, arguing they distort the market and slow down the transition to clean energy. But faced with reluctance from EU countries, it has now tabled a compromise based on a common EU definition of energy poverty.

No single “bazooka”

At the European Commission, Robert Nuij agreed, saying barriers to greener heating are multiple, not just economic. “We see information barriers, regulatory barriers, and economic barriers,” Nuij told participants at the EURACTIV event.

“What we are trying to do is to lower these barriers and make it easier for people” to buy more environmentally-friendly heating systems, he said.

However, “there are going to be many pathways” to decarbonise heating, the official pointed out, saying the Commission’s building renovation flagship won’t contain a “bazooka” that will address the issue single-handedly.

“From a policy perspective, what is very important for us is to set clear long-term targets that give certainty to the markets about where we should be moving. And then create the framework conditions for consumers to make the right choices,” Nuij said.

Standards will also play a part. “We are revising our measures for eco-design for space and water heaters,” Nuij said.

But EU governments will have a central role to play, with national building renovation strategies due next year that will set national targets for 2030, 2040 and 2050 to decarbonise the building stock.

EU deal sets off race to renovate Europe’s building stock

After a third round of talks, EU lawmakers reached an agreement Tuesday (19 December) on the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), firing the starting gun to renovate Europe’s entire building stock by 2050 so that it becomes “nearly zero emissions”.

Grid managers could also play a more active part in the transition, Goyens said, pointing to resistance to change among power grid operators at the local distribution level.

“They really have a problem with alternative energies like solar panels,” she told delegates at the EURACTIV event. As consumers start producing their own solar electricity, that is “disrupting the cosy business of network management,” she pointed out.

“There, I really see a lack of engagement to provide creative solutions.”

Goyens  also lashed out at energy companies, saying green offerings to customers often lacked transparency and were often green “only on paper”.

“The least that they shouldn’t do is greenwashing. And there is quite a lot of greenwashing in the advertising and marketing of some of those” energy firms, she said.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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