Taking Stock: Energy Efficiency in the Built Environment

The majority of the buildings that will dominate the UK’s skyline in 2050 are already standing, and this means that whatever action is taken to bring new builds to a zero carbon standard, the results will be dwarfed by the effects of our current stock. Even if we assume that the government has all new builds in hand, dealing with carbon targets through improvements to the building regulations, the state of our existing buildings and the energy used to serve them remains a far larger issue.

Despite a push to give free insulation to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it, there has been a disappointingly low rate of implementation, with approximately 50% of cavity still without insulation. This leaves a substantial amount of low-hanging fruit left unpicked, and there are many potential reasons for the lack of take up, including limited public understanding of the issues and how they can be solved, poor publicity of available opportunities, and the difficulty of certain types of insulation, such as that required to treat solid walls. Whatever the reason, we are still wasting an unacceptable amount of money and energy through poorly insulated buildings.

The recent implementation of Green Deal is also failing to deliver, as the finance options are not compelling and the process is over-complex. This is not helped by the fact that very few people even know of its existence, and therefore stand no chance of taking advantage of any opportunities it may present. The issues are further compounded in the commercial market by a lack of incentive for landlords to improve the efficiency of their properties; investing in energy saving measures does not currently mean that they will necessarily get a better return or heightened rental efficiency, so many are passing on the opportunity. Tenants can’t undertake Green Deal measures as the property does not belong to them, so a great number of buildings remain in a state of inertia.

The government has dangled a number of carrots in both the domestic and commercial sectors, targeting low income groups to encourage action, but they are clearly ineffective; huge holes in the efficiency of our building stock remain and clearly are not being addressed by the measures currently in place. Fundamental changes in the way the problem is tackled are therefore required to remove the image of bothersome individuals that try to pedal their wares door-to-door and replace it with an industry of trusted professionals undertaking work that will benefit consumers.

Equally in need of addressing is the lack of faith in the ‘Big Six’, who are no longer trusted to give fair impartial advice; the past year has seen an avalanche of negativity directed at the collective, who stand accused of profiteering and unethical practice. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the giants, as they’ve just been instructed to repay the £400 million that they’ve been sitting on instead of handing back to consumers as refunds for overpayment, breeding more cynicism. Until we can trust suppliers to act with integrity, it will be difficult to persuade the public to take any of their advice. For too long now there has been a justified assumption that customer benefit is secondary by quite some margin to profit. However, there may be a glimmer of hope as the likes of OVO criticise the big boys on their profiteering ways and offer to pay 3% on all positive balances. This encourages a level of trust not seen in the marketplace since “Tell Sid”. If they develop the trust and offer credible solutions maybe “Sid” will start to listen!

When it comes to zero carbon for new build, there has to be a thorough understanding of how and what this relates to; will it ultimately include all loads and equipment? Will the same rules apply for residential and commercial? Without this clarity, it becomes increasingly difficult to steer the waters of energy efficiency without inadvertently hitting the rocks. Also, some of the UK’s largest energy users relate to process/production requirements, which are no doubt the focus of address by EUETS and CRC. It is therefore imperative to integrate energy generation with the point of use, and Greg Barker MP’s much lauded ‘Big 60,000’ concept will be crucial to the success of the zero carbon economy.

When considering solutions to the retrofit problem, what is needed is a holistic approach. The industry must combine a reduction of energy through insulation with the integration of new plant into existing infrastructure, whilst remaining aware of issues such as over-insulation, which only lead to further need for cooling and therefore greater energy demand. The standards and targets that are coming into play now need to be balanced in such a manner that we install the most cost-effective technology in the right place, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all attitude that won’t necessarily bring the best results.

The focus has to be on existing assets, which will always consume more energy than the zero carbon buildings of tomorrow. Consideration must also be given to the change in climate conditions, which currently indicate increasing external ambient temperatures that will drive up the need for greater cooling provision in the future. We’ve already seen over-insulation of flats, causing unacceptably high internal ambient temperatures during the summer, and over-heating could therefore become as important an issue as energy and heating.  

There are many issues surrounding energy reduction: we need to address it within existing properties, raise the moral standards of the large suppliers, encourage consumer trust and awareness, and create intelligent solutions to an increasingly urgent problem. Only once these measures are in place will we face the future with a worthy building stock.

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As Chairman of the Rolton Group, Peter provides high-level strategic advice to a range of governmental, public sector and commercial clients. He is an acknowledged specialist in the renewable energy sector, and there is good reason for this: when it comes to energy, Peter is clear about the issues we face and the need for a cohesive strategy to tackle them. He is a passionate advocate of informed debate, and has consistently brought clarity to this complex situation."If the UK is united on one thing about energy it is that, on an individual basis, the public knows what it’s not in favour of. When it comes to offering up solutions, it’s not that confident. Pointing at single solutions like wind farms and saying that they are too expensive is missing the point. Carbon-based forms of energy like oil and gas are running out. Energy is going to be more expensive and a portfolio of renewable energies will necessarily be part of our solution in the future." Peter holds particular expertise in the areas of site-wide energy planning, zero carbon power generation, low carbon design, carbon offsetting and the application of renewable technology. He has acted as a Government advisor on numerous consultations and white papers, presenting to the Secretary of State on a number of occasions on the subject of renewable planning and public sector engagement. He has worked as a strategic partner with some of the world’s largest and most successful blue-chip companies, and is a Director of Renewables East, the renewable energy agency for the east of England.Peter is both a chartered building services engineer and a chartered member of the Institute of Energy, and has gained accreditation under the Carbon Trust Consultant Accreditation Scheme for solution development, with particular expertise in the establishment of energy strategies. He founded his first business, Rolton Services Consultants Limited, in 1989, and founded Cool Planet Technologies, a specialist renewable energy delivery partner which was sold to British Gas in 2010. He has been the architect of the path through which Rolton Group has addressed the challenges of renewables, carbon and the built environment."We need to see the bigger picture and not become hung up on individual technologies and individual costs. We need a completely different technology mix and not a reliance on one form of energy supply. We need all forms of technology to be applied – and we need it to happen quickly."

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