A fresh climate for energy efficiency

Published:  05 May, 2011

Energy efficient, David Frise
Serious about reducing carbon emissions — David Frise.

The Japanese earthquake has cast a shadow over nuclear power, and changes to the Government’s funding schemes have upset the renewables market. The future is now all about energy efficiency, says David Frise.

The Government’s radical reshaping of the Feed-in Tariff (FiT) scheme has infuriated the renewables industry. The words ‘betrayal’ and ‘shambolic’ have been bandied about as this still-fledgling sector digests the news that large solar photo-voltaic (PV) arrays (over 50 kW output) will no longer attract the extremely attractive rates of return promised.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) also received a muted response, as many potential investors had their hearts set on the higher tariff rates quoted in the early stages of the consultation on this initiative.

However, behind the sound and fury people have to accept this is an inevitable injection of commercial reality. The business community was sceptical from the outset about what looked suspiciously like one of those ‘too-good-to-be-true’ deals.

We have to face up to the fact that the public-funding cupboard is bare. The £860 million the Treasury has found for the RHI should be seen as a major bonus when the main focus is on cutting the deficit. The retention of the FiTs for domestic-scale solar PV still makes them a good long-term bet.

But these are not the main priorities. The re-setting of the public financial position makes the building-services industry’s role clearer. The big push now will be on energy efficiency.

Nuclear

The Japanese earthquake and subsequent nuclear nightmare at the Fukushima reactors has almost certainly delayed development of our own nuclear capacity. We are in urgent need of alternatives here — and energy efficiency, on a massive scale, is our best bet.

For the building-services engineering sector, the big opportunity is the huge potential programme of retrofits. Chief Construction Adviser Paul Morrell has identified the ‘one-building-a-second’ challenge between now and 2050, and this was picked up by CIBSE as the theme for its 2011 national conference. The key to achieving real, tangible results is applying the 3-step ‘energy hierarchy’ across our entire built environment.

1: Reduce energy demand

2: Improve energy efficiency

3: Apply low- and zero-carbon technologies when appropriate — and only after steps 1 and 2 are complete.

The Green Deal funding, which will be available from Autumn 2012, is an ideal platform for an energy-hierarchy programme at the domestic level. Government ministers believe that up to 14 million buildings could be fitted with energy-saving measures in the next decade through the Green Deal finance, providing a vital boost to jobs in the energy-efficiency refurbishment sector — potentially rising from the current 20 000 to 100 000.

London Mayor Boris Johnson has also announced a £2.7 million fund for energy-efficiency retrofits in public buildings — including fire stations, hospitals and offices. This type of initiative can produce results quite quickly and, importantly, cost-effectively. Also, by making our buildings energy efficient we can ensure we get the best from the renewables that are, eventually, installed.

A successful energy hierarchy starts with basic, low-cost measures such as adding insulation and double glazing. Tackling thermal gain with passive additions such as solar shading will reduce the need for air conditioning. As well as tackling insulation levels for the building fabric (cavity walls and ceilings), a good next stage of the energy hierarchy is insulation of individual items like heaters, valves and pipes.

Measuring and monitoring current consumption is also crucial because you can’t save what you can’t measure, but surprisingly few building owners do this well. Smart meters will play an increasingly important role, and the Government would be well advised to focus on rolling out a ‘smart grid’ alongside so we can start plugging a substantial part of our looming energy gap. Step one should be capped off by putting a proper, strategic ongoing maintenance and commissioning regime in place.

At stage two, we can look at adding intelligent controls and sensors to existing building-services systems. Also, basic first steps for improving the energy efficiency of the heating and ventilation should be taken, including adjusting thermostats and ensuring that all systems default to ‘off’ rather than ‘on’.

Sensors

However, to make really serious inroads into their carbon emissions, building owners need to look at the addition of sensors and timers. Motion sensors will switch off lights in unoccupied rooms, and daylight sensors cut down on the unnecessary use of lighting.

Only once these basic measures are complete should building managers consider replacement technologies. Even then, they should first look at introducing new pumps or variable-speed motors that do not significantly alter the set up of the system but which can make immediate reductions in running costs.

We must also make behavioural change as easy as possible by creating systems that bring it about automatically. We must deliver easy-to-use, self-adjusting systems that will adapt to changes around them (temperature, occupancy, patterns of use etc.) without the need for an intelligent user. In fact, the end user becomes greener without any significant effort or inconvenience.

That technology already exists in the shape of applications for smart phones; web-enabled measuring and monitoring and remote diagnostics allow us to give and take control where necessary. It is, clearly, a huge opportunity for our industry. ‘Smart’ technologies are relatively easy and cheap to apply. The engineering challenge is working out how best to apply them and then persuading clients of the long-term benefits. Putting renewables on top of all those measures should only be the icing on the cake — not the cake itself.

David Frise is head of sustainability at the HVCA.



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