Making Europe’s Buildings Efficient

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It’s a commonly held perception that Europe leads the Western world with respect to energy efficiency. In many ways, it’s true. Europeans tend to live in smaller homes than Americans and are less fond of air conditioning and other energy-intensive equipment and appliances. The Passivhaus standard, which has pushed the boundaries of energy efficiency for buildings and has gained broad popularity in the region as well as worldwide, was developed in Germany.

In other ways, however, Europe and the United States remain quite similar. A 2008 report on building codes from the International Energy Agency found that the main level for prescriptive u-values – a measure of how readily a building’s walls conduct heat or cold from outside – in building codes is largely the same in Central Europe and North America. The strictest codes, not surprisingly, are in Denmark, Norway, and Finland, where harsh winter conditions necessitate rigorous insulation standards.

The countries of Europe, however, will regain their lead on energy efficient building codes in the next decade as a slew of regional and country-level regulations and targets push Europe closer to net-zero or net-positive buildings – the pinnacle of building efficiency. Although less than 1 percent of existing building space in Europe is “nearly zero energy” today, all new commercial building construction and major renovation will be required to meet nearly zero energy standards by the end of 2020 under the EU’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). The deadline for the public sector is 2018. That’s ambitious.

Beyond the regulatory factors, Europe’s efficiency markets will be driven by key factors including interest in reducing energy costs and risk, interest in carbon emissions reductions, corporate social responsibility, and increased property values associated with green and efficient buildings. Electricity prices are much higher in most European countries than in the U.S., rendering shorter paybacks on energy efficiency measures. The low-carbon economy is growing in Europe (emission allowances thefts notwithstanding) and buildings will be a central battleground in the effort to reduce carbon emissions economically.

One of the unique aspects of the European efficiency market is the helping hand that energy agencies have in promoting efficiency on a localized basis. These organizations, which usually involve participation from both public and private stakeholders and a diversity of public and private funding sources. They facilitate cooperation on efficiency between building owners and ESCOs and help streamline efficiency investments for building owners that would otherwise lack the resources to make those investments. For example, the Berlin Energy Agency, one of Europe’s largest energy agencies, aggregates groups of small municipal buildings into single energy contracts to increase the attractiveness of investing in energy efficiency upgrades for small commercial buildings.

So we’ll see how quickly the countries of the European Union adapt to the new regulations for net-zero building. They have nearly a decade, but there remains a lot of work to do in both the public and private sectors to get there.

Article by Eric Bloom.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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