Achieving net zero: strategy for achieving greater energy efficiency in the built environment

Categories: Blog

This month has undoubtedly been an exciting time for improving the energy efficiency of the built environment. The vision of the Sustainable Energy Association (SEA) is to help create living and working spaces fit for future generations, by ensuring that all buildings are energy-efficient, low carbon, warm and healthy. However, this can only be achieved through clear, long-term strategy.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘silver bullet’

There is no ‘silver bullet’ or ‘quick fix’ solution to decarbonising energy in buildings. A range of technology solutions, financing models, and delivery methods are required, and these must be built into a long term sustainability plan. Policy stability is key to providing investor confidence, driving innovation, encouraging change, so Government needs to manage a transition away from ‘boom-bust’ subsidies towards sustainable regulations and market-based incentives.

In my recent talk at UK Construction Week Virtual, I highlighted that heating and hot water for UK buildings make up around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. In order to meet net zero, therefore, progress must be made on decarbonising the heating sector. The SEA’s “Wrap then Heat” report sets out a strategy for this, stating that reducing the energy needs of buildings starts with the fabric. A fabric first approach is crucial given that all heating systems operate more efficiently in a well-insulated building; improving the thermal performance of homes and buildings will minimise heat demand and help to make low carbon solutions, such as heat pumps, more competitive.

Address health and wellbeing

Aside from the energy efficiency benefits of the “fabric first” approach there is also an opportunity to improve the health and wellbeing of the homeowner. It is essential that homes are comfortable and can be affordably heated, particularly as we head into a vulnerable winter season where many of us are likely to be spending a lot more time indoors. A holistic approach must therefore be taken when designing and retrofitting buildings, including additional measures to prevent unintended consequences and aid health and wellbeing.

The good news is that technologies and solutions for achieving these energy efficient and healthy homes exist today; the bad news is that they are not yet commercialised or widely adopted in the UK. This is partly because of a risk averse construction sector and housing sector with low incentives to change, both of which must be inspired to transform and take a (calculated) leap of faith. The SEA is working with organisations like the Construction Leadership Council to remove the barriers to innovation and increase the uptake of smart construction which would help progress the zero carbon agenda.

Encourage innovation

The solutions do not have to be complex or intrusive in the home. There are also many innovative, product level innovations that can assist in achieving net zero. Members of the SEA are behind some of these innovations: Airex, for example, has developed a smart ventilation control that looks like an air brick and Vestemi has produced smart thermostatic radiator valves. We must actively encourage, and be excited for, these smaller innovation projects as they often meet barriers due to the rules and processes within current government-led energy efficiency schemes or lack of demand.

Go local

We must accept there is also no “silver bullet” solution in the geographical sense.  A local approach is needed to address the diverse housing stock and the different challenges faced across the UK. Local authorities have a greater understanding of particular needs in their area, will be closer to the point of delivery of carbon saving schemes, and better able to monitor success. The ‘contagion affect’ of local projects should not be underestimated. Property owners and residents will learn of local campaigns and aspire for the same benefits of comfort and warmth. A new social norm for building energy efficiency will be driven by seeing and hearing real life examples of the benefits.

Develop knowledge and skills

Finally, these forementioned strategies must be supported by sufficient knowledge and skills. The Government and industry must focus on up-skilling installers to be able to meet the growing demand for low carbon heating systems. Having the infrastructure in place to install these new systems is essential so the low carbon process is as easy, if not easier than with traditional fossil fuel systems. Energy efficient, low carbon homes must become the #newnormal to consumers, not only because they are better for the environment but because they are easier to deliver and have longer term financial and health benefits.

In summary, the SEA’s recommended strategy for achieving greater energy efficiency in the built environment calls for a technology agnostic, whole house, fabric first approach that addresses the health and wellbeing of the homeowner. Strategies must be localised and implemented with clean and stable government policy and consumer incentives that inspire confidence and provide certainty. We must also encourage innovation and not put barriers in its way.