The European Commission has delayed tabling planned energy-efficiency standards for central heating boilers commonly used by households, after its attempts to put together a proposal repeatedly bounced back due to technical difficulties.
The European Commission has been leading discussions on setting minimum energy efficiency standards for boilers since 2007, but Brussels stakeholders involved in the consultations are getting frustrated with slow progress.
Gas and oil-fired central heating boilers were estimated to be responsible for 17% of the EU's CO2 emissions in 2005, making them an important contributor to climate change.
The target date for finalising the standards, which will come in the form of new implementing measures under the 2005 Eco-design Directive, was originally set for the beginning of 2009. The deadline has since been delayed twice, and the Commission is now aiming to get national experts to vote on it in January 2011.
The proposed approach broadens the scope of efficiency requirements, moving on from looking at the efficiency of boilers alone to the heating system as a whole. It also packages the boiler together with other heat sources like solar energy.
Looking at the system, however, makes calculating efficiency values extremely complicated because of the numerous possible combinations of components.
While the heating industry welcomes such a 'system' approach, it is growing frustrated by errors that crop up in the updated calculating models presented by the consultants contracted by the Commission. They warn that the EU executive should not be rushing through faulty legislation which will impact on every household.
Green NGOs, on the other hand, have taken the line that the EU needs to move on the legislation to capitalise on the huge potential for energy savings. They argue that even if the approach is not perfect to start with, an early revision could improve the policy over time.
"Of course, we have to set efficiency goals at levels that are possible to reach and of course there will be uncertainty when introducing a new methodology, which is part of this proposal," said Gunnar Boye Olesen of the International Network for Sustainable Energy (Inforse-Europe).
But he argued that adopting such efficiency values by the end of the year (combined with a revision a couple of years later, when the ambition level could be increased depending on how the market has responded to the legislation) would give boiler manufacturers the four years they say are needed to comply with higher standards.
"You have to realise that the whole idea of the measure is to make a market transformation into more efficient equipment. So it's not interesting to have regulation where every boiler on the market can just pass," Olesen said.
Another point of contention remains the practicalities of the labelling scheme which the Commission wants to accompany the efficiency standards. This would see boilers tagged with labels denoting the product's efficiency on an A-G scale to help consumers decipher the energy savings they could make by replacing their old boiler.
Providing incentives for households to choose the most efficient heating system available is crucial to achieving energy savings, as boilers are generally in operation for 10 to 15 years. To allow for comparison, the Commission is planning to introduce the same labelling system for boilers of all energy sources.
But industry critics say this is like comparing apples with oranges and might prompt fuel switching, notably away from oil. They argue it could prove a disincentive for consumers without access to the gas grid, who might therefore be prompted to do nothing.
Environmentalists, however, point out that switching from oil to more efficient gas boilers would both reduce fossil fuel consumption and cut CO2 emissions. The benefits of switching to electricity, however, will depend on the price of electricity and the sources used to produce it, they say.
The Commission has been favouring the idea of only labelling renewable technologies with the best 'A' label. But experts say that heat pumps, for example, are still too expensive for the average customer, who might then lose sight of the savings they could make by opting for a gas-condensing boiler, for example.
"Just replacing the current stock of old boilers by modern heating solutions would easily achieve the EU's 2020 target," said Udo Wasser, secretary-general of the European Heating Industry Association (EHI). He argued that condensing boilers, which represent the top technology on the market, should be given an 'A' rating and anything above that should receive 'A+'.