What price energy efficient buildings? Representatives from sectors like construction, social housing and renewable energy met in Edinburgh in March to consider how Scotland might ready itself for the challenge of making buildings less wasteful. Paul Marsh reports.
GAPS are all the rage when you’re talking about the construction industry, it seems. Performance gaps, finance gaps, culture gaps – you name it. This event, organised by networking group eCoConnect, was titled “Re-thinking the built environment: Is Scotland ready for the challenge?” It stopped short of offering an affirmative answer to the question posed by the title. Panelists pointed fingers at a number of gaps, or shortfalls, principally within the sector itself but also with the effort to legislate for it.
Around half of all primary energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions are linked to the construction industry. So it’s a fairly crucial sector to tackle if the country is to meet its low carbon targets. Given that most of the buildings currently in use will still be standing in 2050 – 80% of current housing and 60-70% of commercial buildings – it seems energy efficient retrofitting and maintenance is how it will mainly be tackled. In Scotland legislation will soon mandate the meeting of energy efficiency and performance targets, as a requirement for the re-sale or rental of property.
More exacting audits planned
Goth agreed the audits which lead to the production of [ energy performance ] certificates are relatively light touch. “They are quite well designed in terms of giving a bit of information that is well understood by the industry. But the fact there’s no requirement to act on it can mean it is merely viewed as ‘a tax on transactions’.” He said he believed the changes now coming through in the Autumn [ requiring bodies to achieve a level “E” in their EPC” ] will start to produce behavioural change.
An audience member mentioned a presentation he had attended from the Green Investment Bank (GIB) looking at the finance models it has been using to assist local authorities invest in measures like energy efficient street lighting. While seemingly low-hanging fruit, in terms of the clear cost benefits to be gained, it has actually proven very difficult to get local authorities to act on an investment like this. Do we need bigger sticks?
Another questioner brought up the Green Deal, the coalition government’s flagship policy for implementing energy saving measures, now widely viewed as a flop. In Scotland there are about 3000 live plans in the system, and around 7000 for the UK as a whole. Cuthbert said that while there has been a lot of focus on the negatives – the confusing finance and so on – one of the successes of the scheme has been with the Assessments. In Scotland around 75k of these have been lodged in the EPC register. People like these: They build on the EPC, fine-tune its findings, look at household behaviour and offer advice to householders.
He believes the “pay as you save” model is probably here to stay, as it doesn’t rely on government funding. Labour has been looking at using it only to address fuel poverty, and offering 0% finance, but that’s the only possible change he has heard about.
It may be a model with promise for the non-domestic sector as well, with forthcoming regulations like section 63 of the Climate Change Scotland Act, effective from June 2016, and incorporating mandatory levels of energy efficiency. “With finance you could argue that having an additional option like that is better than no option at all.”
Goth agreed, praising the pay-as-you-save concept as “financially literate”. Reflecting on the Green Deal he agreed that people like having the information from the assessment as a baseline. They just haven’t seemed to want to go ahead and invest using the finance that’s available.
One audience member asked the panel how we can generate more action from consumers on issues like energy efficiency. Maybe we need the equivalent of the advertising campaigns around issues like smoking and the wearing of seat belts.
Cuthbert said the basis for action lay with the supply chain. If people are looking to replace their boiler they go to a heating engineer, and it’s up to the latter to have the information about biomass boilers and ground source heat pumps and so on. “If you get that in place there is no need to worry about the psychology of householders,” he said. But there is currently a big challenge with getting these specialists to make place for things like renewables.
There is a need to make energy efficiency a national priority, Stewart said, citing a report from Cambridge Econometrics last year, in which energy efficiency came out as particularly beneficial to the economy because it creates so many jobs in addition to tackling climate change and fuel poverty.
It was a discussion that seemed to highlight the presence of many “gaps”: In skills, investment, certification, targets, funding and so on. Do we have a leadership gap at local authority level? There certainly seems a lack of political will to make it happen.
Goth mentioned a tool developed by the Scottish Government, called Individual Social Material (ISM), which is intended to help people understand the different reasons for change, with an organisational or cultural issue like sustainability, and to develop more effective policies to make it happen. Dimitrijevic suggested any knowledge gap that exists is likely to be with the older generation, as schools now routinely teach sustainability.
Another audience member raised the fact that the construction industry is very bad at adopting new technologies. Dimitrijevic said it’s down to the client to provide leadership. “The informed client has to be in place,” she said, and it’s down to the public sector to be informed. The construction sector is just like any salesman: If you want it, they’ll sell it. Stewart pondered the popularity of district heating in Copenhagen, where he recently visited. “Something’s happened there,” he said. It has become imperative to make energy cheaper. The government has legislated for it, local authorities have formed companies to fund it, and customers just look upon it as the normal thing to do. “It feels as if that should be the case in Scotland but for some reason it’s not happening.”
Cuthbert said a key obstacle was the knowledge gap in the supply chain, in terms of being able to make the business case for it. One audience member said she saw a lot of change happening with the public sector, but it’s the private sector where there’s a problem. Large contractors aren’t interested in it, and energy efficient measures are expensive, while maybe not adding to the prestige or immediate attractiveness of a property. Stewart felt the answer was partly to regulate, and lamented the recent relaxation of building standards, a tweak justified on the basis that housebuilders were already under too much commercial pressure. “Till we get to the point where people are require to produce ‘zero carbon buildings’ or similar, you won’t get the uptake in technology and modern methods of construction,” he said. “After all you don’t really want to be having to go back and retrofit in the future if the technology exists now to avoid that.”
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