Making the right choices for a low carbon future

The UK is committed to reducing carbon emissions. Hywel Davies looks at the implications for building services

The UK is committed by the Climate Change Act and Paris Agreement to reduce carbon emissions significantly. This has implications for the fuels used to generate electricity, how buildings are heated and connected, and how increasing mobility is powered. It must also have a fundamental impact on how much energy is used.

The UK is also committed to leaving the EU. Whatever that means for the future, its current membership of the union – as well as the Clean Growth Strategy – oblige it to review minimum energy efficiency standards for buildings, starting later this year. In England and Wales, this means the respective versions of Part L; in Scotland, Section 6; in Northern Ireland, Part F. The Republic of Ireland is already reviewing its Part L, and our members are busy with that review.

There is new legislation on the energy efficiency of rented buildings, seeking to drive improvements – and, in April, the European Parliament approved the final text of the revised Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, or EPBD. While this is not due to come into force until December 2019, it is highly likely to feature in the transitional arrangements as the UK leaves the EU.

The way that energy is distributed and buildings are interconnected is also changing, as we embrace ‘smart’ grids, cities and technologies. We are moving from a centralised energy supply and distribution system – perhaps epitomised by the name of the former Central Electricity Generating Board – to one in which a building can be a power station.

Finally, in England at least, we await the report on the Independent Review of Building Regulations and Fire Safety, led by Dame Judith Hackitt. Based on her interim findings, we can expect her to advocate significant changes in the way we build, manage, maintain and regulate buildings.

We are in a period of profound change – but what might that change entail for building services engineers, or for the Institution as we develop guidance and recognise competence?

We talk about decarbonising the electricity grid, but it isn’t the whole answer. To cope with the extreme peak demand during the recent ‘Beast from the East’ we needed 50GW of electricity plus gas. With fair wind and coal-fired power (due to be phased out by 2023) we coped. Just.

 The challenge is to replace or decarbonise gas, which offers flexibility to meet extreme demand 

The challenge is to replace or decarbonise gas, which offers flexibility to meet extreme demand. Battery storage and smart systems can currently balance supply and demand for a few hours; the ‘Beast’ stayed for a few days –nearly a month in Scotland.

The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is consulting on the options for our future approach to heating buildings and how they may work in different building types and tenures.

But it is not sensible to plan electricity generation based on a one in five-year event. We must instead reduce demand in our buildings to cut peak exposure and the cost of providing new low carbon energy supplies.

We must reduce weather-related peak demands to make heat pumps viable gas-boiler replacements – and we must start now.

We have a very poor record on lowering demand. Apart from the introduction of condensing boilers, there has been little regulatory intervention in the energy efficiency of building refurbishment.

We must take a common-sense approach to the energy demand of our buildings, but common sense is not very common, most certainly not when it comes to energy efficiency in buildings. 

Real improvements can be made, but require timely interventions, as they can be inconvenient and disruptive. We need to target the best moments to intervene, and offer a mix of incentives and regulation to create the right market conditions.

For example, what can be done when people buy a new-to-them home, have not got a loft full of ‘stuff’, and want to make their new place their own? They will have just paid a healthy whack in stamp duty – but what if they were offered a slice back in return for properly designed and installed energy efficiency measures? Could that generate scale and make energy efficiency attractive? We urgently need a large-scale programme to improve the energy performance of our building stock.

This is where the Committee for Climate Change comes in. It has made it clear that the UK is not on track to meet future commitments to cut emissions under the fourth and fifth carbon budgets – so junking energy efficiency measures next April because they came from Brussels is not an option; we already have a gap to close to meet the targets.

The revised EPBD may come in handy instead. It focuses on the need for much more building-energy retrofit work, and for governments to create the financial climate in which this can happen. 

We must seize the chance of the consultation on future heat, review of Part L and the new EPBD to develop a clear strategy for an energy efficient built environment – and supply the guidance and competence framework to support those who will need to deliver it.

Read Hywel Davies’ blog.