A below-the-radar vote in an obscure EU committee to set new efficiency standards for central heating boilers has sealed energy savings that could equal 10% of Europe’s energy consumption by 2020, green groups say.
After more than five years of haggling, the Ecodesign directive’s regulatory committee in March voted through a text setting minimum green requirements for boilers and water heaters, which also forces them to be labelled for their energy savings potential.
Stéphane Arditi, a senior policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), told EURACTIV that the ensuing emissions reductions would be “massive”.
“Europe’s energy efficiency targets have received a huge boost thanks to these votes,” he said. “They will have a dramatic impact on cutting our carbon emissions and save Europe millions of euros on energy bills.”
According to the EEB’s calculations, the boiler and water heating measures alone will account for 15% of the EU’s 2020 goal of improving energy efficiency by 20%, as measured against a baseline projected in 2005.
The environmental group says that taken together, the EU’s Ecodesign measures will eventually make up between 40%-50% of the 2020 goal – and as much as 10% of the EU’s primary energy use.
“We are really happy that this was adopted,” said Arianna Vitali Roscini, WWF’s energy conservation policy officer. “This is one of the efficiency measures that really deliver energy consumption reductions, even if it is technically detailed and not so visible.”
Dana Popp, a spokeswoman for the Association of the European Heating Industry (EHI), also welcomed the directive’s passage, but with caveats.
“We have some rather strong worries about the emissions level requirements for gas-fired space and water heating appliances,” she told EURACTIV. “For gas water heaters, they have set the NOx [nitrogen oxide] requirements so low that industry fears they will no longer be suitable products on their own, because of the investment required.”
“We are basically talking about a fuel switch, which is a bit worrying,” she said, arguing that any shift to electric water heating would, currently, increase CO2 emissions.
Environmentalists say this concern is overblown.
'Comparable to the ETS'
A recent Ecofys study found that correctly implementing the Ecodesign directive would save 400 million tones of CO2 emissions a year, a figure “comparable to the impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions expected of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS),” the paper said.
The highly technical new Ecodesign text should effectively phase them out, and raise the bar for more efficient condensing systems.
From 2015, condensing heaters will only get a maximum ‘A’ ranking on a new energy performance label that runs on a scale from ‘G’ to ‘A double+’.
In 2019, a new ‘A triple+’ category will be introduced for super-efficient boilers, such as heat pumps and, from this point on, only renewable and co-generation technologies will qualify for the ‘A+’ tab that enables a green-coloured tab on the new label.
Among other things, industry groups are unhappy that condensing heaters will then see their colour label change from green to yellow. Efficiency advocates are equally unhappy that condensing boilers are being labelled as green until at least 2019.
When the energy commissioner intervened
In the years of haggling over the directive, objections to issues like testing and calculation methodologies were raised by Europe’s central heating industry, big German manufacturers and, at one point, the Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger.
“There was suddenly an interruption of a transparent process by a last minute lobby from German industry to a German Commissioner and it [raises] a fundamental issue of transparency and democracy,” Arditi said.
According to EHI figures, Germany produces 60% of all Europe’s boilers, with Italy (20%) and Britain, France and the Netherlands (15%) making the rest.
But claims of any national linkage were “very exaggerated,” Papp said. “The fact that the energy commissioner comes from Germany is a coincidence. He could have come from anywhere. Obviously if he has an interest to protect, he will do it towards the respective [EU] directorate.”
Arditi said that the final text, which still has to be rubber-stamped by the European Parliament, had been influenced by “greenwashing behaviour” from industry, but was still better than the alternative.
“At the end of the day [we had] to make a balance between what we could get and the timescale involved,” he said. “We estimated that each days delay to the labelling and performance requirements could cost around €50 million in lost energy savings across the EU. After one year it would have been more than €1.5 billion.”
However, many environmentalists argue that the directive’s long gestation period impels a rapid implementation and review process.
“A rapid and quick revision of the Ecodesign directive is called for to ensure that its requirements really reflect the technological transformations in the market since the studies that underpinned the regulation were conducted,” Vitali Roscini argued, noting that the new standards will not come into force until 2015.
Contested efficiency costs
Cost is another contested factor. Gas and oil-fired boilers retail for around €1,500-€3,000 and have an efficiency quotient of around 50%, while condensing boilers which retail at around €5,000 can reach have an efficiency level of 81%.
Heat pumps though can deliver energy savings of over 130%, although their price varies from as much as €20,000 to just €6,000 for the least efficient models, which still use less energy than the best-performing condensing boilers.
“We fear that the directive won’t have the desired impact – of ensuring that only very efficient products are chosen by customers because economically speaking, some alternatives are far from affordable,” Popp said.
For environmentalists like Arditi, support for condensing boilers means locking the poor into high energy bills and fuel poverty for years to come. Instead, he called for more green loans and schemes to scrap and trade-in old boilers.
Dustin Benton, a senior policy advisor to the UK’s Green Alliance, told EURACTIV that despite their long-term savings potential, ordinary British consumers were buying less energy efficient appliances because of the recession.
“There is a discrepancy between the projected savings from the Ecodesign Directive and what is actually happening,” he told EURACTIV. “We need to move more swiftly on the regulatory front and also to provide incentives for energy efficient devices.”
He proposed adopting the American idea of ‘negawatts’ – a feed-in tariff for consumers to encourage their use of low-carbon energy sources.
“You can pay people between £10-£35 per avoided kilowatt hour of energy, which compares favourably to low carbon electricity generation,” he said.
Within the EU though, horizons are currently being set more modestly, towards the coming European Parliament vote, and a proposed review of the new text in 2014.