Renovating low carbon homes in the EU: Dan Staniaszek, BPIE

Reading time: 4 minutes
6 April 2016

Dan Staniaszek, a Senior Expert at Buildings Performance Institute Europe, looks at ambitious low carbon renovation strategies in the European Union that are highlighted in a recent report by the Institute. This is part of The Climate Group's project Home2025.

Buildings are not only the most significant consumers of energy within the European Union – where they collectively account for 40% of total consumption – they also represent the largest untapped potential for energy saving and, with it, reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, according to the International Energy Agency.

Scaling up building renovation, notably through reducing building heat loss and providing more efficient and clean heating systems is thus a priority for the European Union.

It is also the only truly sustainable solution for the scourge of fuel poverty, estimated to affect as much as one in four European citizens.

A recent report, “Renovation in practice” from the Buildings Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), analyzes a variety of approaches and solutions to tackling the renovation challenge in terms of scale, financing, addressing non-technical barriers, level of ambition, or achievement of social objectives.

Five case studies in the report cover different approaches to low carbon renovation, including: zero-energy for zero-upfront-costs (The Netherlands); a revolving loan fund (Estonia); a large-scale national program (Germany); a scheme tackling fuel poverty (France) and dedicated energy services for the public sector (UK).

Success factors to be considered with these different approaches range from maximizing buy-in through stakeholder engagement to having the right level of political commitment.

But, as experience has shown, reliance on purely voluntary measures does not result in the required level of building renovation – despite attractive financial support available to consumers. As BPIE recommends in its study, new strategy is needed to take advantage of opportunity windows.

In particular, the following opportunities for regional, national and EU authorities to introduce renovation obligations within their jurisdictions should be fully evaluated:

  • The 3% annual renovation requirement for central government buildings (EED, Article 5) should be extended to ALL public buildings.
  • Over time, buildings in the lowest energy performance classes, which typically are difficult to heat and often have problems such as mould growth, condensation and poor indoor air quality, should be deemed unsuitable for occupation. This can be achieved by imposing requirements when renting and selling properties (residential and non-residential) or by applying a threshold energy performance target within a given timeframe.
  • Social housing should be in the top quartile of energy performance ratings, in order to provide comfortable, affordable housing, particularly for households at risk of fuel poverty.
  • Any extension, change of use or addition to existing buildings, or replacement of energy systems such as heating and cooling equipment, should be conditional on improving the overall energy performance.
  • There should be progressive introduction of mandatory requirements at sale of a property, both residential and non-residential, so that the least efficient stock needs to be improved before it can be sold.
  • Change of heating or cooling equipment, or undertaking maintenance work on the building should be accompanied by a requirement to improve building energy performance and an assessment of options for the introduction of renewable energy systems.

Driving change

Among the best practice cases examined in the BPIE report, arguably the most innovative approach is the ‘Stroomversnelling’ scheme in The Netherlands.

The social housing building stock in The Netherlands is relatively old and poorly insulated; around half of the buildings were constructed between the 1950s and 1970s. Within the framework of the country’s Energy Agreement, social housing corporations accepted an objective to achieve an average energy efficiency label ‘B’ by 2020.

In order to help deliver this target, Stroomversnelling (“rapids”) was developed by Energiesprong as a bottom-up approach supported by the Dutch Government, in which a zero energy concept for the existing social housing stock is stimulated in a faster and cheaper manner.

The aim is to refurbish 111,000 rental houses to zero net energy by 2020, to be paid for by energy cost savings over a 30-year period. 'Net zero' means the renovated dwelling will not consume more energy for heating, hot water, lights and appliances than it produces from installed renewable energy systems. Key features include:

  • The amount tenants pay for housing costs (rent and energy) remains the same before and after renovation.
  • The net zero energy-improvement of buildings is achieved within 10 days.
  • An energy performance guarantee of 30 years is provided.
  • A high degree of prefabrication using industrial processes is used.

Stroomversnelling represents a disruptive new business model for the renovation sector that involves a longer-term, holistic approach of delivering the goal of a zero energy renovation, packaged along with the financing arrangement as a fully integrated solution.

The project also offers tenants better, healthier and more comfortable homes, as the dwellings targeted often have moisture, draft and noise problems coupled with high-energy bills. With attractive façades, solar panels and smart metering, as well as new kitchens and bathrooms often included, the habitability of the home and look of the neighborhood or district is improved.

The biggest difference between Stroomversnelling renovations and a normal renovation is that almost everything is produced off-site in a factory, with only a small percentage of the work required in the on-site installation phase.

Tech innovation

Achieving a zero net energy renovation requires a holistic solution that (i) minimizes the heat loss and energy consumption requirements of the building; (ii) produces the required energy in the most efficient manner; and (iii) generates renewable energy to meet the remaining (small) demand.

Through Stroomversnelling, technical innovation is coupled with the necessary financial solution to deliver zero energy renovations at no cost to the tenants.

The financial engineering behind the project is based on funding of the upfront capital costs from the WSW social bank, that has made available around €6.6 billion (US$7.5 billion) to underwrite Government-backed loans to the housing associations - generating a 5.25% financial return on investment (using the WSW social bank discount rate for corporate projects) over a 30-year period.

The 30-year performance and maintenance guarantee and monthly fixed-term payment creates an “energy plan” that replaces the bills previously paid to utilities, ensuring the tenant pays no more for the combined rent and energy bills than they did prior to renovation.

Critically, the Stroomversnellin solution can readily be adopted in other EU Member States, wherever there is a significant social housing stock.

Renovating Europe

Indeed the potential for others to follow the Dutch model has already been recognized. The UK has recently established an offshoot “Energiesprong UK”, bringing together housing providers, charities and construction companies to develop a similar approach.

Improving the energy performance of existing buildings through deep renovation can bring about European energy security, job creation, fuel poverty alleviation, improved health and productivity – as well as help fighting climate change.

While many barriers to building renovation exist, there are many examples where these have been successfully overcome – as illustrated in the BPIE report – which can inspire and stimulate others to replicate these achievements, as well as the years of experience and learning they embody.

These initiatives should be studied closely by policymakers, so that the general principles behind successful schemes, summarized in the report, can be reflected in future legislation.

Edited by Cosmina Marian, Communications Associate, BPIE

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