Moving towards zero-carbon buildings

Despite the anti-climax that was Copenhagen, climate change still drives a great deal of energy and environmental policy. The UK has a statutory target to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 80 per cent by 2050 and the Climate Change Act also enshrines a mechanism for setting milestones along that path. Under this regime, the UK should cut its emissions by 34 per cent by 2020 – just 10 years away. Should the international community finally agree legally binding targets at the next summit in Mexico later this year, the target will rise to 42 per cent cuts. Either of these reduction targets is, as they say, a ‘big ask’.
The public sector, being directly under government control, is expected to lead the way in cutting down on emissions. This concept is enshrined not just in UK legislation but in European Directives as well.

Zero carbon buildings
Buildings account for about 45 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, so it is clearly a major focus for reducing carbon. And government policy is to ensure that all new domestic buildings are ‘zero carbon’ by 2016 and new non-domestic buildings reach that status by 2019. While that builds in energy savings for the future, most of the building stock that will be in use in 2020 was constructed some time ago to lower (in some cases much lower) energy performance standards. Existing structures account for the bulk of the ‘2020 stock’ – perhaps 80 per cent. ESTA argues that this fact alone should put the spotlight firmly on retrofit as the key priority for saving energy and cutting emissions, if we want to have any chance of achieving our 2020 goals.
In addition, it is clear that all cost-effective measures will need to be deployed for this to happen.
The new Part L of the Building Regulations, dealing with energy performance of buildings, is due for publication in the next few weeks – although with an election on the horizon, exact dates are difficult to predict. The new regulations are expected to be less prescriptive about how to achieve carbon reductions, but will expect much better energy performance. And Part L is not just for new buildings – refurbishment of existing structures are also covered. Some technologies, such as automatic Monitoring & Targeting (aM&T) are incentivised in the Regulations; their use qualifies for a relaxation on the overall emissions limits. This is because this technology is now well-established and is known to generate savings. It relieves energy managers of the tedious and repetitive data-collecting procedure and instead gives them a powerful tool to focus on areas of energy consumption and prioritise between energy saving opportunities. This technology has been shown to be cost-effective for organisations with relatively small energy bills and it is an obvious option for larger users and multi-site operations.

Monitoring consumption

The need to monitor energy consumption – and in the case of public buildings, display the results – is enshrined in the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. We are all familiar now with Display Energy Certificates. What may be less well-known is that the revision to the Directive, which has now been agreed by European legislators, will require DECs for far more public buildings. The threshold used to be 1,000m2 but the limit will first drop to 500m2 and then to 250m2 from 2015. Once again, some of the latest aM&T systems can play an important part in helping public authorities comply with regulations by being able to produce DECs automatically.
It is interesting to note that the revised EPBD also requires that “refurbishment must result in installation of best rated component replacements, matching best cost-optimal contemporary standards wherever appropriate”. In other words there will be a presumption that best practice will be followed (although cost-effectiveness is also included as a criterion).
The Building Regulations assume that a certain proportion of a building’s energy requirements will be met through renewable sources. The ‘zero-carbon’ definition the government is using in the context of buildings is also based on the inclusion of on-site and near-site renewable energy. However, there has been a tendency to try to achieve zero-carbon status through a complete switch to renewables. This actually goes against the principles of sustainability as well as doing little for either cost-effectiveness or security of supply.

A recent report on low-carbon buildings by the Royal Academy of Engineering attacks what it refers to as a fashion for ‘eco-bling’ – which it defines as unnecessary renewable energy visibly attached to the outside of poorly-designed buildings. The author of the report, Professor Doug King of the University of Bath, noted that it would cost the same amount of money designing a more sustainable building in the first place as it does to install renewable energy on a building, with the added benefit that residents could save up to half their energy bills.
ESTA is certainly not against the use of renewable energy, but it does agree with the Royal Academy that optimising building performance is the key first step in cutting emissions. This is what government policy promotes as well – energy efficiency first, renewables second.
And in regard to that other fashionable activity of offsetting emissions, it is noticeable that although this is accepted as a means of ‘mopping up’ residual emissions where an organisation is aiming to become ‘carbon-neutral’, offsetting cannot be used to achieve zero-carbon status for a building.

Carbon trading
Another aspect of energy policy which the whole of the government estate will have to come to terms with is carbon trading. The CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme came into force in April and means that all public sector organisations will have to account for their carbon emissions – and pay for them in the longer term. It is interesting to note that the original name for this programme was the Carbon Reduction Commitment (the ‘CRC’ acronym has been retained) but it is now firmly focussed on energy efficiency.
This first year is now a ‘reporting year’ – organisations will just have to account for their emissions. However, it is still important as this will become the base year for future comparisons within the scheme. In addition, there will be a ‘double’ payback in October 2011 which will be based on the early adopter measures undertaken during this first year – so please do not dismiss 2010-11 as irrelevant.
From next year, participants will have to purchase emissions allowances and although the monies raised will be recycled to them, there will be a league table so that better performing bodies get more money back than those who perform poorly. There will be added incentives for ‘early action’ in the first few years including – again – the installation of aM&T.
Behind the immediate climate change concerns there is a wider backdrop of sustainability issues. Being efficient about our use of scarce natural resources is ever more important and not just for public image reasons. Our survival depends upon it – in the shorter term because we have to solve the riddle of climate change and in the longer term because resources are finite and have to be used wisely.

The Energy Services and Technology Association (ESTA) represents over 100 major providers of energy management equipment and services across the UK. The Association organises a series of free conferences.

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