Industry: Long-term policy key to low-energy buildings

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This article is part of our special report Energy efficient buildings : Powering Europe.

Several European countries are formulating long-term policy frameworks to ensure that the construction sector can invest securely in low-energy buildings, despite weak EU requirements, a board member at industry group EuroACE told EURACTIV in an interview.

Susanne Dyrbøl is a member of the board of the European Alliance of Companies for Energy Efficiency in Buildings (EuroACE).

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

EuroACE is releasing the results of its second survey on very low-energy buildings today (18 February). What was the purpose of this study?

Our first survey was done to create a big picture of what was going on in the member states. Now, we have done a follow-up where we have looked more closely into what is happening in those member states that are already quite advanced in their plans towards low energy buildings.

We selected five member states: Denmark, the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands. For those five countries, we have looked into what the potential for energy savings is per square metre, but also what the saving could be in total if they were building according to their national definition of a very low-energy house.

We looked at the current building code and the requirements in the EU and what we expect them to be for a very low-energy building. These will be different for every member state, because they all have different approaches and because a low-energy building is defined in different ways.

So we made calculations on the basis of different national situations.

Why did you choose these particular countries?

When we did the first survey, we identified eight countries, which had key strategies on how they would develop their building code towards very low-energy buildings. But we felt that these five were already well underway.

Finland, for example, has a plan, but it has not, at the current stage, introduced its building requirements in kilowatt hours per square metre. I would say that it was already difficult to be able to make the calculations for the countries we selected.

What kind of results did you get?

We have a kind of an estimate, I would call it, for the possible savings in kilowatt hours per square metre for those five countries, and we have also tried to estimate the potential CO2 emission reductions.

That was both taking into account the current energy mix in the member states and how we expect it to be when all buildings are constructed as low-energy buildings.

We did detailed calculations for the five countries, and the population of those member states is approximately half of the inhabitants of the EU. So we have also extrapolated the savings to total savings covering the whole EU.

You have no new member states on the list. Do you think this will have implications for such generalisations?

For sure it will, but the judgement of the research institute which did the calculations for us was that we are on the safe side, that our numbers are probably too low compared to the savings potential in the new member states.

Many of the member states we have looked at have already been strengthening their requirements for energy use for many years. Denmark, for example, will have the lowest savings potential, because it already has quite tough requirements on energy use.

What would you say is the biggest lesson learnt from the survey in terms of developing policies to promote low-energy buildings?

The energy and CO2 calculations are very detailed. I think we have tried to identify some good examples, an easy-to-access overview for other member states if they want to learn what is going on in other member states.

But, for me, the main lesson is not so much the estimated energy and CO2 savings, which are in line with the Commission's impact assessment for the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) recast, it is more to show other member states how it can be done. Also, if the member states start to explain their plans, it will be so much easier for the construction sector to guide their development and process to be in line with what the government wants.

The information was mainly gathered through questionnaires, which were sent to people dealing with the subject in the different member states in their daily work. So we asked them what types of policy were used to promote low energy in buildings.

I would say that all the member states answered that the time of the announcement of the further tightening of the energy performance requirements was seen as the most efficient way to promote low-energy buildings.

It is extremely important that member states announce their strategy on how they plan to develop their requirements, not only for the next five years but also the next ten of fifteen years. 

When the industry knows that there will be demand for low-energy construction and components, they will develop those and put them on the market. We could clearly see a difference between the two studies when we compared which types of answers we got in the first study to the answers we had for the second study. Just this year, they had seen a lot of developments on what is actually happening in the market.

For me, at least, it is very clear that the member states really need to make a long-term plan. Of course, it is difficult for the rest of the sector with all the training and the development, but as soon as the industry knows where the government wants to go, it will speed up the process. 

What role do you see for the EU's Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) in stimulating national policies?

In the current EPBD, it is foreseen that the member states will review their requirements every five years. But we have identified at least eight countries which have made a plan for how their energy requirements will be strengthened up to 2020. They are not only saying what will happen in the next revision but also how the building code should develop until 2020.

I would say that the text is not very ambitious in itself, but I think that the way many member states have chosen to implement the EPBD is so. 

In fact, when member states were supposed to implement the EPBD in 2006, they were not asked to strengthen their building requirements, only to put these in terms of kilowatt hours per square metre. 

Many member states at that time had already strengthened their energy requirements. Just by asking them to look at these, I think the EPBD had an impact, which in fact is much more ambitious than what it actually asks for. I would not say it in general, but in eight of the member states, we have seen this.

There are of course those member states which don't have a plan, but our idea with the new study was also to show the member states that haven't started yet what the countries taking this further are doing. Hopefully, it will be easier for them to follow when they can see what others have already done.

Although there are some member states who have ambitious plans for the future regarding low-energy buildings to become the standard, there is still an urgent need for the European institutions to continue to guide the development through ambitious European legislation like the current EPBD recast.

Your first survey was used by the Commission in its impact assessment that accompanied the proposal to recast the EPBD. What kind of impact do you foresee for this second survey on EU policy?

We will of course present it to the Commission and we hope it will be used by the member states to see that low-energy buildings are not just a vision but something that is already happening in several member states.

It is clear for everybody that the biggest savings potential is in the existing building stock, but each time you construct a new building which is not done as a very low-energy building, it will take maybe 30 to 50 years before it is renovated again to become low energy, despite it already being possible to do now.

We can see that if the construction sector first learns to construct very low-energy buildings, it will also influence the renovation of existing buildings. I think that is possibly the most important thing.

Do you think the current process of extending the EU Buildings Directive will make it a more ambitious reference document for member states to base their policies on?

I think the text we have seen from the Commission is quite ambitious already, but of course we would very much like to see some improvements on the article they have proposed on very low-energy buildings.

We would like the member states to be asked to implement a requirement for having all new buildings be low-energy buildings by 2012. Also, we would like to see the majority be zero-energy or zero-carbon by 2015.

The way they have phrased the requirement for low-energy buildings is that member states should define themselves what percentage of low-energy buildings they would have, whereas the EuroACE position is that of course member states should be asked to have all new buildings low energy and not only a part of them.

Then, of course, member states should be asked to develop a separate target and strategy for renovating the existing buildings. That's extremely important.

Another remarkable finding in the study was that "lake of motivation" was seen as a greater national barrier than cost, which again underlines the need for proper legislation. A timely announcement of further tightening of energy performance requirements was judged to be very efficient to promote very low-energy buildings, which I can confirm from an industry point of view as well. 

Again, here a national strategy for all new buildings to become very low-energy buildings could very easily be required in the current EPBD recast.

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