The European Union could be set to define energy efficient buildings as “nearly energy zero” if the definition, proposed last week by the European Parliament’s Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE) Committee, is adopted into law.

The Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) who form the committee have issued a radical new draft for the ongoing revision of the bloc’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), and then voted 51-1 in favour of it on 11 October.

The directive revision forms part of the European Commission’s Clean Energy Package.

Nearly zero-energy buildings

The new draft includes a much more robust set of proposals than the old one, asserting that “it is vital that the existing building stock” become “highly energy efficient and decarbonised up to nearly zero-energy standard by 2050”.

This definition of energy performance is credited to Danish centre-right lawmaker Bendt Bendtsen, who had brokered an amendment that defines decarbonised building stock as “building stock performing to Nearly Zero-Energy Building (nZEB) level”.

Bendt Bendsten, Danish Christian Democrat Member of the European Parliament

Currently, only one per cent of new construction is nZEB, despite the fact that the current Energy Performance of Buildings Directive requires all new buildings to be nearly zero-energy by the end of 2020 and all new public buildings to be nearly zero-energy by 2018.

Promoting investment in buildings

The draft amendments go on to say that European nations should “seek a cost-efficient equilibrium between decarbonising energy supplies and reducing final energy consumption” by giving investors “a clear vision to guide their policies and investment decisions”.

This would include “well-defined national milestones and actions for energy efficiency to achieve the short-term (2030), mid-term (2040) and long-term (2050) objectives”.

The annual renovation rates for Europe’s buildings need to improve dramatically from the current rates of 0.4 to 1.2 per cent, depending on the member state. Almost 50 per cent of the European Union’s final energy is used for heating and cooling, of which 80 per cent is used in buildings.

Bendtsen told the website, “Public money does not solve everything. Private investors need security and energy efficiency projects offer that.”

Monica Frassoni, president of the European Alliance to Save Energy

Monica Frassoni, president of the European Alliance to Save Energy said the ITRE vote counterbalanced the weak approach of the Energy Council and “set a reliable and coherent framework to attract investments in the building sector”. She went on to call for investments to scale up “to an unprecedented level”.

National roadmaps

The new draft calls for member states to “establish a long-term renovation strategy for mobilising investment in renovation” of all types of buildings “with the aim of encouraging and guiding the transformation of the building stock into a highly energy efficient and decarbonised building stock by 2050”.

Member states will be required to produce national roadmaps and strategies for attaining milestones along their decarbonisation roads. Over 75 per cent of Europe’s building stock is presently classed as inefficient, so there is plenty to do.

The European Council of the Ministers had sought to take a more general approach than this, and reduce the ambition of the Commission’s proposal, but the new amendments go much further and call upon member states to offer clear guidelines and measurable, targeted actions for especially improving the worst performing segments of the national building stock, for energy-poor consumers, for social housing and for households that suffer from so-called split-incentive dilemmas.

States should also set requirements for a certain level of energy performance for rental properties, the new draft says.

Job creation

The MEPs have their eye upon the potential for this to create jobs. They point out that “ambitious goals for deep renovation of the existing building stock will create millions of jobs in the Union, in particular in small and medium-sized enterprises”.

Therefore nations should set out “initiatives to promote skills development and education in the construction and energy efficiency sectors”.

Building with timber

For the first time, an EU document has also acknowledged the value of building in timber to sequester atmospheric carbon in the body of a building.

One of the amendments reads: “When the energy use [of a building] will be brought closer to zero, then the share of embodied energy will be more decisive in the whole lifecycle of the building. The future vision for a decarbonised building stock should include the embodied energy in buildings. Therefore building with wood is positive for the climate.”

The value of planting trees to create regenerative cities is also stated: “Nature-based solutions, such as well-designed street vegetation, green roofs and walls providing insulation and shade to buildings, reduce energy demand by limiting the need for heating and cooling and improving a building’s energy performance.”

Indoor air quality

The list of valuable amendments doesn’t stop there. Last month the EU’s environment committee’s MEPs sought to encourage more attention on indoor air quality. As a result the draft quotes World Health Organisation guidelines, which state that better-performing buildings provide higher comfort levels and wellbeing for their occupants and improve health.

The draft calls for energy performance upgrades of existing buildings to “contribute to achieving a healthy indoor environment”.

It then identifies the sources of ill-health:

“Thermal bridges, inadequate insulation and unplanned air pathways can result in surface temperatures below the dew point of the air and in dampness. It is therefore essential to ensure a complete and homogeneous insulation of the building including balconies, fenestrations, roofs, walls, doors and floor.”

Trigger points

Bendtsen’s amendment to the European Commission’s proposal includes the setting of “trigger points” when a building’s energy efficiency would be improved.

A trigger point “means an opportune moment, for example from a cost-effectiveness, cost-efficiency or disruption perspective, in the lifecycle of a building for carrying out energy efficiency renovations”.

Trigger points include whenever a renovation is conducted for another reason, such as for an emergency, scheduled purposes, or as part of an agreement between tenants.

Buildings to have their own passports

No, this doesn’t mean that buildings might travel. It means that each one can have its own plan for how it will become more efficient up to 2050.

To this end yet another amendment from the ITRE calls for the European Commission to conclude a feasibility study by 2020 “on the possibilities and timeline to introduce a building renovation passport, perhaps as part of the recommendations section of the energy performance certificates, to provide a long-term, step-by-step renovation roadmap for a specific building”.

This will be based on quality criteria and follow an energy audit, and outline relevant measures and renovations that would improve the energy performance of a specific building.

Electric vehicles

The Commission said the EPBD could support the introduction of electric vehicles, by requiring that all non-residential buildings install a charging point for every tenth parking space provided.

The Committee, however, wanted the EPBD to focus mostly on building renovation and believed that it should not be used to regulate transport policy. Rather, electric transport should be supported in its own legislative actions. The new report states that non-residential buildings should install pre-tubing for electric charging points, rather than full charging infrastructure.

Next steps

The ITRE vote on 11 October secured backing from across party groups in the Parliament, with 51 votes in favour, 1 against and 11 abstentions.

This new draft will move for discussion and vote in Plenary at the end of October. If approved, the legislation should move to trialogue discussion in early November.

The current Estonian presidency hopes to reach a resolution by the end of its mandate on 31 December.

David Thorpe is the author of  Energy Management in Building and Sustainable Home Refurbishment.