A consortium of local authorities and universities from five countries across the North Sea region is calling for a new EU target of a 40% reduction in primary energy demand by 2050 and adoption of the Passivhaus standard.
The existing target is a 20% improvement in energy efficiency by 2020, but the EU is currently on track to achieve only half of this.
The appeal comes in a report, written by Dr Bruce Tofield and Martin Ingham, from the University of East Anglia (UEA)’s Adapt Low Carbon Group, which concludes that radically improving the energy efficiency of new and existing buildings is key to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions, and Europe should be leading the way.
A core strategy in their thinking is the use of the innovative Passivhaus concept for both new build and refurbishment, which can reduce energy use for heating and cooling buildings by 90% and is already in use in both new buildings and refurbishments in the UK.
Passivhaus, a standard originating in Germany, is primarily a tough Quality Assurance standard, which demands great attention to detail during the design and construction process to achieve certification.
It is especially valuable in helping to relieve fuel poverty, and so Passivhaus is increasingly being used in the social sector. Tenants who will be paying gas bills as low as £5 per month have just moved into the UK's first social housing development to achieve the European PassivHaus standard. The scheme is at Wimbish near Saffron Walden in Essex.
Announcing the winner recently of a competition to create Passivhaus demonstration homes for the BRE Innovation Parks in Watford and Scotland, a member of the judging panel, Robert McLeod, praised bere:architects & The Princes Foundation for Building Community for their "genuine commitment to the task of alleviating fuel poverty and addressing wider socio-economic issues".
He also called the standard of all entries "a real testament to the growing strength of Passivhaus in delivering robust solutions to low carbon building in the UK," proving that the talent and skills already exist in the country.
This month, the first Passivhaus schools in the UK also achieved accreditation. They are: Bushbury Hills Primary School in Wolverhampton, Montgomery Primary School in Exeter, and Oakmeadow Primary School in Wolverhampton.
It means that the schools' managers will have minimal energy bills throughout the buildings' lifetimes. The Exeter school was built with the help of a Zero Carbon Task Force grant.
Passivhaus is an allowable standard under the government's plans for all new homes to be zero carbon from 2016, however it is not yet even mentioned in the Building Regulations.
A 40% reduction in energy use by 2050 for the EU is in line with the ambitions of new energy and climate change secretary Ed Davey.
At the launch of his new Energy Efficiency Deployment Office earlier this month, he called for a cut in UK energy use of between a third and a half by 2050.
But Dr Tofield criticised current European efforts to increase energy efficiency. “The 20% energy efficiency target for 2020 is almost certainly a lost cause," he said.
“It's way off target and there's no enthusiasm where needed (member state governments) to get it back on track."
He criticised the Danes, who have made the best progress in Europe on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and who currently hold the Commission Presidency, for not pushing this. "Instead, there is a lot of talk about targets (renewable energy, greenhouse gas reduction and energy efficiency) for 2030," he said.
“A long-term target of 40% would galvanise the near-term action on energy efficiency that is essential if action to tackle potentially dangerous climate change is to succeed,” he added.
Dr Tofield said he agreed with the EU Commission’s Energy Roadmap 2050 that a big reduction in energy demand is achievable and that very energy efficient buildings should become the norm, but he said many barriers remained.
“The biggest barrier is lack of political will to accelerate progress in energy efficiency,” he said.
“New build ambition is insufficient and the rate of building refurbishment to achieve high standards of energy efficiency is far too low. Political will to transform buildings will demonstrate EU leadership on climate action post-Durban. Cities across the EU can lead this change.”
With the finishing touches being put to the Green Deal, the UK's flagship strategy for tackling fuel poverty and energy leakage in buildings, does Dr. Tofield think it will be successful?
"The problem with the Green Deal is that we cannot know if it will be effective," he says. "There are no targets. The UK government wants to leave everything to 'the markets'.
"A second problem is that there is no subsidy. As experience in Germany has shown, an element of subsidy is important if you want significant take up for low-energy refurbishment."
He says one problem is short term thinking. "Investment decisions on building refurbishment are made with a time horizon of a few years at most. A subsidy, as in Germany, can help people to think longer term."
Therefore, the funding institutions involved in the Green Deal should not be looking for a quick return. Instead he advocates using the funds of insurance companies and pension funds, "institutions that really do have a long-term horizon for investment".
The campaign also calls for building codes to change to adopt Passivhaus as the default for new build as well as for refurbishment, something which the AECB, the Sustainable Building Association, has called for many times.
The government is consulting right now on changes to the 2013 Building Regulations, specifically Part L, which refers to energy efficiency. However, the new draft contains no reference to Passivhaus.
Neil Cutland, director of Cutland Consulting, said he is "very disappointed" at this. He was a member of one of the working groups contributing to the revised text, which recommended that a certified Passivhaus dwelling should be given 'deemed to satisfy' status" for meeting a 2013 target.
"The Passivhaus standard is clearly in advance of the proposed 2013 energy/carbon standard, and its certification process leads to guaranteed outcomes," he added.
"No-one was proposing replacing ADL1A and SAP with Passivhaus, but that Passivhaus should be an optional alternative.
"This would have advantages for government as well as the environment, and would give the Passivhaus enthusiasts a ‘pat on the back’ for going above and beyond the call of duty. Seemed a no-brainer to me," he concluded.
But having poorly insulated homes is not the only reason why some people are paying too much for their energy use.
New research from think tank ippr finds that people who use the same amount of energy and live in the same area are paying vastly different amounts for their energy because of the way they pay their bills.
They are calling for regulator Ofgem to clamp down on anti-competitive practices in the energy market.
Those who are on a ‘standard credit account’ (paying for their energy use in arrears) and are very unlikely to switch tariff or supplier, are most likely to be paying over the odds.
With more than 60% of all households having never switched energy supplier and 34% being on standard credit accounts, over five million may be being overcharged.
IPPR tested tariffs for British Gas, EDF, E.ON, Npower, Scottish Power and SSE for three different payment types using a price comparison website for properties in London, Sheffield, Dumfries in Scotland and Aberystwyth in Wales.
Across each, Scottish Power was found to consistently offer the greatest differential between their standard and cheapest tariff at over £330.
The difference was greatest in Sheffield at £339 and second greatest in London at £333.
Npower offered the second largest differential between these tariffs of up to £315. E.ON was £229.
Whilst British Gas, SSE and EDF all offered much smaller differentials of up to £126, £100 and £86 respectively, as a whole, the difference in the tariffs offered could not be justified solely by the cost of different payment methods.
Those who are vulnerable or on low incomes are overrepresented among the group at risk of being overcharged.
Nick Pearce, IPPR director, said: “The loss-leading by some suppliers is limiting competition in the energy market by making it harder for small suppliers and new entrants to compete."
Story: David Thorpe, News Editor