Building efficiency: Waking up the sleeping giant

The revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive aims to completely decarbonise the EU’s building stock by 2050. [Justin Kern / Flickr]

Cutting wasteful energy use in buildings is at the centre of EU efforts to decarbonise its economy and reduce dependence on fossil fuel imports. However, there is still vast untapped potential in modernising heating, cooling and ventilation equipment known as technical building systems, research has shown.

Buildings – whether residential or commercial – are responsible for 40% of the EU’s primary energy consumption and 36% of its CO2 emissions.

This has placed building renovation at the centre of the EU’s efforts to tackle climate change, improve energy security, and even tackle fuel poverty.

But at the current renovation rate of only 1% annually, it would take a century to decarbonise the entire European building stock, according to projections by the European Commission, the EU executive.

In fact, a tripling of the renovation rate is required if the EU wants to cut CO2 emissions 80% by 2050, its stated objective.

So is there an instant win? While policymakers agree there is no silver bullet, experts point to vast untapped potential from so-called “Technical Building Systems”, which cover things like space heating, hot water, air conditioning and ventilation equipment.

When those systems are optimised, the energy consumption in a building can be reduced by 30% on average, according to a recent study by Ecofys, a consultancy.

However, this potential is currently far from being exploited by EU member states, the study found.

Technical building systems: An overview

The 2010 Energy Performance of Buildings directive (EPBD) introduced new policies to cut wasteful energy use across European homes, commercial buildings and offices. It required all new buildings built after end 2020 to be “nearly zero-energy” – meaning they have very high energy performance and use most of their energy from renewable sources.

Ensuring optimum use of energy in existing buildings is considered essential in order to reach this point. But it also often means overhauling the way energy is managed across a whole range of equipment – such as heating, hot water, ventilation or air conditioning – that consumes most of the energy in private homes and commercial buildings.

And cash-strapped homeowners and small business usually prefer delaying such kinds of investments, because they don't always see an immediate benefit.

The energy savings potential of modernising those systems could be “significant” however, according to the European Commission. And down the line, they will translate into lower energy bills for consumers and businesses.

A study contracted by the Commission shows for instance the primary energy savings and CO2 emissions reductions that can be expected from the application of Ecodesign and energy labelling measures linked to space heating, hot water, cooling and large ventilation systems in domestic and commercial buildings. By 2030, these could reach 122 Million tonnes of oil equivalent (Mtoe) and 240 Mt of CO2 across the EU every year, the study found.

Moreover, some investments in new technical building systems can be easily recouped. A recent study by Ecofys, a consultancy, found that upgrading some TBS comes with a payback time of 2-5 years on average, without any lock-in effect. And some are really cheap and easy, like replacing a thermostatic valve on a domestic heater, which can have a great impact on energy savings.

EU ban on aging boilers expected to bring ‘mammoth’ energy savings

New energy standards for home boilers entering into force this month are expected to take offline the equivalent of 47 Fukushima-type nuclear power stations in Europe by 2020, according to official EU data compiled by the European Environmental Bureau (EEB).

The European Union has agreed a headline objective of cutting energy consumption by 30% under a broader climate and energy policy for 2030.

But ironically, in the next five years, progress in getting self-driving cars on the road is expected to be faster than taking advantage of efficiency technologies that already exist – such as Technical Building Systems.

The current Energy Performance of Buildings Directive has a number of provisions aimed at cutting energy use from TBS, which are listed under Article 8. In particular, EU countries are requested to “set system requirements” to ensure the overall energy performance of equipment installed in the existing building stock. These are defined as: 1) Heating systems; 2) Hot water systems; 3) Air-conditioning systems; 4) Large ventilation systems.

EU member states are encouraged to do this through “the installation of active control systems such as automation, control and monitoring systems that aim to save energy”. These are increasingly managed digitally, with lights or heating switching on and off depending on the usage of the building or where the occupants are.

EPBD revision: Focus on e-mobility

More generally, the European Commission told EURACTIV that TBS “have an important role in the performance of buildings”. To optimise their energy use, Article 8 of the current EPBD requires EU member states to ensure their “appropriate dimensioning, adjustment and control, as well as obligations on the regular inspection of heating and cooling systems”.

These provisions were updated in the revised EPBD, tabled by the Commission in November 2016 as part of a wider package of laws on the clean energy transition. Except this time, the ambition is much higher, with a flagship objective to completely decarbonise the EU’s building stock by 2050.

So what about the role of TBS in meeting this objective? In the case of large installations, the revised text promotes electronic monitoring and building automation as a replacement for inspections, the Commission told EURACTIV in e-mailed comments. It also includes measures for documenting upgrades of technical building systems.

But other provisions related to technical building systems (Article 8) remained largely unchanged.

The most significant amendments are related to the promotion of e-mobility, by boosting the installation of recharging points for electric vehicles in private buildings. The draft text of the revised directive says that whenever a building with more than ten parking spaces undergoes major renovation, at least one of them should be equipped with a recharging point.

Cooling and refrigeration sector: the Cinderella of the EU’s energy system

One of the main reasons the cooling and refrigeration sector is under-represented in the EU energy debate is the poor self-organisation of interested stakeholders, given they're spread out among multiple industrial branches, writes Kostadin Fikiin.

Vast untapped potential

As a result, most of the discussion around the revision of Article 8 has revolved around electric vehicles. And some experts believe this has diverted attention from other improvements in TBS, where the energy savings potential is still vast.

A recent study by Ecofys has evaluated the annual primary energy savings potential in 2030 linked to the optimisation of Technical Building Systems. It consists of:

  • 27 Mtoe (and 61 Mt CO2) in the case of consistent basic optimisation of TBS; and
  • 58 Mtoe (and 126 Mt CO2) with additional advanced building automation and control systems (BACS).

Danish energy firm Danfoss, which contracted the study, says there is an enormous potential there waiting to be tapped. According to Ecofys, this would amount to €67 billion savings on energy bills for citizens annually by 2030 – or the equivalent of taking 82 million cars off the road.

“It’s time to wake up a sleeping giant,” Danfoss said about the study. “We are talking about no-regret measures that can quickly deliver very significant reductions of energy consumption, energy bills and CO2 emissions.”

Heating and cooling: We have the technology, we need the policy

Commissioner Cañete promised a year ago that heating and cooling would play a crucial role in the Energy Union’s quest for energy efficiency. After the initial enthusiasm, Lars Tveen asks whether the Commission will deliver on this promise and considers the potential in the sector.

Poor implementation

The Ecofys study underlined the “little attention” paid by EU member states to Article 8, saying implementation at national level is “far from complete” and often related to “trivialities” about product certification.

In particular, the study highlighted “a serious lack of awareness” among national authorities that energy performance needs to be examined “whenever TBS in existing buildings are newly installed, replaced or upgraded”, not just when major renovation takes place.

In addition, authorities seem to confuse overall “system” requirements with the efficiency of separate components taken individually, such as boilers and pipes, without looking at the “combination” of those.

The result is a collection of “scattered requirements” for individual components without any real attempt to look at energy efficiency of technical building systems as a whole. “Building automation, which has the potential to optimise this interaction, is addressed even less,” the report says, pointing to “a severe lack of guidance on how to interpret and implement Article 8”, which could be addressed in the upcoming EPBD revision.

The study concludes on a more positive note, however. Final energy savings “of up to 20-40%” could be achieved if Article 8 was implemented more consistently, it says. Best of all, most of these savings don’t require fancy technologies or costly implementation. “This is because so far even basic low-invasive measures that require low investment have been rarely implemented,” the study points out, citing room temperature controls that empower consumers to act on feedback from heat consumption.

‘Smartness indicator’

Another suggestion includes modifying Energy Performance Certificates (EPC) to distinguish the insulation of walls and windows from the energy performance of TBS. For this purpose, the European Commission proposed to include a “smartness indicator” to rate the readiness of a building to adapt its operations to the needs of the occupants and of the grid.

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”.


In the European Parliament, MEPs are starting to realise that improving the energy performance of buildings isn’t just critical for meeting the EU's climate and energy savings objectives – it also dramatically improves people's living conditions and health while boosting the overall economy.

"Many people and politicians in particular have made a connection between energy efficiency and lower production. But this doesn’t have to be correct: it’s about smarter production, not lower levels of production," said Bendt Bendtsen, a Danish conservative lawmaker (EPP) who is rapporteur for the EPBD review in the European Parliament. "When I hear about what’s coming out from member state meetings it’s clear there’s an attempt to water things down! The current draft of the EPBD from our side in Parliament will ensure lower energy bills and healthier buildings. It will also create more blue- and white-collar jobs."

Morten Helveg Petersen, a Danish MEP from the liberal ALDE group, is shadow rapporteur for the EPBD in Parliament. He says having policies to reduce energy consumption from buildings is "unavoidable" because they consume so much energy. "We have to address the building issue; it’s not sexy but it’s bloody important! Member states may be sceptical on this, which is why we need to push this issue".

"The reality is that energy efficiency isn’t sexy and we need for it to be on the agenda and visible. Also, it’s very much a bottom-up exercise which means it’s not easy to see like, say, wind turbines or solar farms. The logistics involved are also consequential."

"One aspect is certainly the difficulty for the energy sector to evolve from producing energy to selling energy services," said Florent Marcellesi, a Spanish Green MEP who is shadow rapporteur for the EPBD in Parliament. "It is clear that companies which embrace the possibility to assist consumers in becoming more active in the energy system, also embrace increased energy efficiency targets. The relevant long-term policy framework has to be in place to allow companies to evolve in that way."

MEPs: Building renovation ‘isn’t sexy but it's bloody important!’

Renovating Europe's building stock isn't just critical for meeting EU climate and energy savings targets – it will dramatically improve living conditions and health while boosting the overall economy, according to the three MEPs leading the European Parliament's work on the Energy performance of buildings directive.


Andre Borouchaki, senior vice president and CTO of Danfoss, says TBS can make a big difference for energy efficiency.

“When these systems are not working optimally, energy goes to waste, they cost money and cause damage to health and the environment. But we have the technologies to prevent this,” he claims, saying consumption could be reduced “by around 30% through upgrades to heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and hot water systems”.

“We have all the technologies at hand to make our buildings smart,” Borouchaki pointed out, saying new technologies like digitalisation could deliver “around 15%” of the EU’s energy efficiency target for 2030. However, he says “political support is needed to remove barriers and accelerate the speed and scale of the investments.”

The European Heat Pump Association (EHPA) has underlined the huge potential of decarbonising the heating and cooling sector, saying it is responsible for 51% of final energy use in Europe and about 27% of CO2 emissions. However, it its also admits decarbonisation will be "a tremendous challenge" because the sector is governed by tradition, and equipment is replaced only when it breaks down.

"Heating and cooling technology is hidden in basements and on rooftops connected via pipes and tubes to radiators, floor heating systems or ceiling boxes," said EHPA Secretary-General Thomas Nowak. "A good heating/cooling system is a working system – out of sight, out of mind. Yet, we do need to increase the speed of change and we need it to happen fast if we are to get to zero emissions by 2050, only 33 years away," he wrote in an op-ed for EURACTIV.

But Nowak believes there is a "a bright side" as well. "Technologies for a decarbonised sector exist and manufacturers know how to make and deploy low-to-zero emission '2050-ready' heating solutions, air conditioning systems and cooling equipment," he writes. What's holding back deployment of technologies is a combination of factors, including continued subsidies for fossil fuels and a lack of financing solutions offered by the banking sector. "Standardised green renovation packages including financing and (if needed) an upgrade of the building envelope must become the modus operandi for business," he contends.

The European Builders Confederation (EBC) stresses that the energy renovation market is becoming increasingly important for the construction sector. Together with the industry-led Renovate Europe campaign, the EBC estimates that 882,900 jobs related to renovation were created in 2015, generating a turnover of €109 billion. Looking forward to the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, the EBC recommends, among other things, to Include regular maintenance of heating and air-conditioning systems in the directive and lower the threshold for both the regular inspection and maintenance of heating and air-conditioning systems.

It also calls on public authorities to support and promote public and private financing schemes for energy efficiency, ensure the dissemination of best practices regarding the aggregation of small energy renovation projects, and facilitate the aggregation of SMEs in groups and consortia.


WWF, the global conservation organisation, has backed the idea of a “smartness indicator” for buildings, described in Art. 8.6 of the revised EPB, saying it will allow smoother interconnection of buildings’ systems with the electricity grid.

“Buildings must become crucial components of a smart energy grid by reducing and optimising energy consumption at the design and operation phase,” WWF said in a position paper on the revision of the EPBD, published in May.

WWF listed the key features it sees as essential in order to make buildings smarter. First among those is the presence of building automation, monitoring and control devices to inform occupants about existing inefficiencies or the need for repairs. However, it says automation and interaction with the grid will definitely be more important characteristics for commercial buildings. For residential dwellings, the emphasis should be placed more on user-friendliness, it said.

Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, highlighted the social and health benefits of building renovation for ordinary people. “Acting ambitiously on energy efficiency reconciles environmental, health and social policy – and the higher the energy savings the bigger the benefits. 75% of European homes are inefficient and this has dire consequences on people and the environment,” FoE pointed out, saying cold homes are directly linked to premature deaths in Europe.

It also warned about the temptation from member states to weaken EU energy efficiency laws currently in the pipeline. “Aiming for a decarbonised building stock by 2050 is welcome ambition, but warm words alone won’t deliver warm homes and a cooler climate. EU governments are sending mixed signals by focusing on technical elements while simultaneously weakening the Energy Efficiency Directive.”

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