A staggering 36% of all energy used today globally is consumed within our buildings. Heat is the biggest energy culprit and as images published earlier this week in UK newspapers illustrate, it is a huge source of energy waste. Heat contributes around a third of our total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK.
It is no wonder then that governments and industry alike are increasingly focused on the decarbonisation of heat in the race to combat climate change. The UK Climate Change Committee (CCC) has established that large scale deployment of low carbon heating must start before 2030 if the UK is to achieve a net-zero carbon economy by 2050.
Time is against us in the race to choose which low-carbon heat technologies to plump for, incentivise and legislate for rapid deployment. With an average life expectancy of 15+ years for a modern boiler, if new regulations were put in place tomorrow it would not be soon enough to replace our heating systems based on their natural life expectancy.
The deployment of low carbon heat technology alone is not enough. The CCC’s modelling for a net-zero economy by 2050 also relies on reducing the energy required to heat our homes, businesses and public buildings. The calculations are based on achieving a 17% reduction in energy waste in our buildings by 2030.
The images published early this week are a graphic reminder of the scale of work that needs to be done to reduce heat waste from our building stock. Whilst decisions have yet to be made on which low-carbon heat technologies to deploy, there is nothing to stop improvements in our buildings that will reduce the amount of energy they consume.
Insulation is a must – there is no point investing in new low-carbon technologies which continue to heat the air outside our homes and offices – but smart technologies are equally important.
Neither the prospect of saving money nor the planet seems to trump convenience when it comes to daily decision making. In our homes, businesses and public spaces, lights are left on, windows opened, and devices are left on standby, even though we know it is wasteful. Schneider Electric research found that 58% of UK public blame others for these failings, rather than recognising this as their own behaviour.
If we won’t change, then we must turn to technology to make up for our shortcomings. The technology already exists that can optimise our buildings according to the number of occupants and weather that day. This includes automated building management systems that deliver flexibility and comfort while reducing energy waste and costs. This level of control and connectivity has exploded in our day-to-day lives but has been frustratingly slow to infiltrate buildings.
Measuring energy use and setting targets
If we are to reduce energy use by 17% over the next ten years, we first need to measure our current energy use. At Schneider Electric we now have sight of 95% of our buildings’ energy use in the UK. We are using this information to identify where energy is being wasted and where we can reduce our energy use. We have targets to reduce our energy use by 5% each year.
Smart devices enable real-time measurement and optimisation today. In the future, smart buildings will become completely flexible and adaptive to multiple different uses within the same physical building. Spaces will become more interactive and agile to the needs of the occupant, be it a meeting room, a retail store or a café.
Behind these buildings will be a series of artificial intelligence-enabled tools that will be able to predict emerging faults, dynamically optimise heating and choose between different sources of energy.
While consumers and businesses can drive forward building efficiency, governments have a vital part to play. They must take action to ban needless building inefficiency, while also incentivising and subsidising investment in retrofitting our existing building stock.
Higher minimum heating efficiency standards for new builds and commercial buildings combined with greater incentives to update the efficiency of older building stock and greater transparency on waste is necessary.
We have seen in the UK that the government’s short term decision to cut subsidies has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of energy-saving projects undertaken in homes at a critical time.
It’s time that everyone, from the homeowner, business chief and government minister, realise the benefits of rethinking heating and building efficiency. The technology we need to make a great start exists today, we need to embrace it.