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Buildings Must Be At The Heart Of Any Successful Sustainable Energy Strategy

A blog for the SEA from the Active Building Centre.

With the built environment accounting for some two-fifths of all carbon emissions, it is self-evident that the UK Government’s goals of reaching net-zero by 2050 require a radical transformation in how buildings are heated and powered.

One leg of this challenge is to ensure that, in the future, buildings are built to sufficiently high standards and specification to achieve carbon-neutrality. In one respect this looks like the most daunting aspect of eliminating the construction industry’s carbon footprint. As well as the ‘operational carbon’ that all buildings emit on a rolling basis, new builds contribute the ‘embodied carbon’ generated during the construction process, such as through the manufacture of concrete.

However, it’s actually the second leg of the challenge – retrofitting the UK’s existing stock of homes and other buildings – that will absorb the most time, money and effort. This is primarily a function of scale, as well as the technical difficulties implicit in upgrading ageing buildings. The vast majority of buildings that we will be using in 2050 exist today. Parliament has calculated that there are 19 million properties in the UK in need of some form of energy efficiency upgrade. Even if the highest energy efficiency standards are enforced for all future new builds, an enormous swathe of existing properties will remain active contributors to the climate crisis in three decades’ time.

There is undoubtedly some low-hanging fruit on offer to the UK Government in setting standards for new-builds. This includes ensuring that the Future Homes Standard and Future Buildings Standard, both of which are due to come into force in 2025, set more stringent requirements than merely being ‘ready for low-carbon heat’.

Ultimately, however, the battle will be won or lost as a result of what is done with existing buildings. There are some longstanding policy asks that the Government might consider here too. Modifying the VAT regime on buildings and construction could help incentivise refurbishment and renovation. The scale of state subsidy for a nationwide retrofit programme is currently the subject of fierce political debate. But perhaps the single biggest and most fundamental step that the Government could take is to embrace the view of buildings as energy assets, rather than liabilities.

We have seen some encouraging moves in this direction. The Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and energy regulator Ofgem recently jointly published their Smart Systems and Flexibility Plan 2021. This acknowledged that ‘our future net zero energy system will comprise of millions of assets’ – namely, buildings. The forthcoming BEIS Heat and Buildings Strategy may advance this point of view further. But the radical implications of turning every building in the UK into a contributor of renewable electricity still need resonate throughout the energy sector that has long regarded the built environment solely as a consumer.

Renewable energy sources like wind and solar power are ubiquitous compared to fossil fuels, enabling on-site electricity generation. Other technologies such as ground- and air-source heat pumps are becoming cheaper and more effective. Full-scale electrification of homes and the availability of high-quality battery storage can even out peaks and troughs in demand for energy from the national grid. All these factors are potential gamechangers in turning homes and other buildings into a decentralised network of millions of renewable micro-power stations.

The UK already has to make significant renovations to tens of millions of buildings in the coming years. Just improving the quality of building fabric will be insufficient to achieve net-zero within the UK’s built environment, even alongside the gradual decarbonisation of the national grid. We should seize this opportunity to retrofit homes and other buildings with the capability to generate and store renewable electricity and then intelligently redistribute it.

The COP 26 climate summit taking place in Glasgow in November is the perfect rallying point for this undertaking. Ahead of that event, we at the Active Building Centre are hosting our own climate conference on the banks of the Severn on 21st October. From the local leaders we convene at Climate Gloucestershire to the world leaders meeting in Glasgow the following month, what’s critical is that the solutions available for revolutionising how we heat and power buildings are understood and embraced by government and industry.

Friday, October 8th, 2021