Confessions of a Sinner

March 09, 2009
March/April 2009
A version of this article appears in the March/April 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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Good intentions abound worldwide for improvements in energy efficiency in efforts to curb the effects of global warming, with governments mandating enormous cuts in C02 emissions. In Europe, where I live, the buildings sector is the center of great policy attention because of the significant potential for energy efficiency improvements, and, thus, carbon reductions. Yet the means for achieving those goals seem out of reach, given the lack of an infrastructure to bring about the changes that are needed. More and more policies are being put in place, but all too often they are inadequately resourced.

I’ve been working in this field since the late 1970s and we still don’t have a way to bring about the kind of widespread energy efficiency improvements in buildings that we need to achieve energy security and fight global warming.
This has gotten personal. I am selling my house in London, England, where you are not allowed to put a building on the market until it has undergone an energy performance audit and received the obligatory certificate stating its energy efficiency rating. This certificate is required under the European Union’s Energy Performance of Buildings Directive, and I was fascinated to see how England would implement this requirement (see “European Home Energy,” p. 37). The directive is complex; it tightens thermal-efficiency standards, requires that energy certificates be issued for homes being sold, harmonizes certain building efficiency standards, and includes all types of residential and industrial buildings.

Much to the horror of my colleagues, my 100-year-old house rated E on a scale from A to G (with A being the top rating) (see Figure 1). I knew it would be poor, but I was hoping for better than that. It’s a three-story Victorian brick house in an historic conservation area in one of London’s leafy western suburbs. My wife and I lived in this house for almost eight years; we moved out recently for work-related reasons and are now attempting to sell it. Under the terms of our conservation area, we cannot have double-glazed windows, and we cannot change any of the external features of the house. We knew that when we bought the house. Not coming from Europe, I figured that British winters wouldn’t be too harsh, so we could live with these restrictions.

But this certification process left me with more questions than answers—questions about the audit, and about what it does to help the future buyer and me. The audit lasted less than half an hour, probably closer to 15 minutes. The auditor asked me what attic insulation I had instead of checking himself (which I’ve subsequently heard he is supposed to do). He told me that I had illegally put in double-glazed windows in the kitchen when I replaced the old rotten ones. I explained that there was no heating in the kitchen other than the stove, and that when I replaced the windows, I didn’t know that I needed to get authorization in advance. But that was no excuse, so I was in error there.

The house has no basement; the auditor did not ask me if I had any insulation under the flooring. He asked if the lightbulbs were CFLs, and I said that about 90% of them were. He was supposed to verify this but he didn’t. He did not ask me if I had done any draftproofing (which I had), and didn’t even look to see if I had done so. He admired my one-year-old condensing gas boiler, which is used for both water heating and space heating, and then complained that the thermostat for the system was of poor quality.

I got the results of the audit—with the big E—several days later. The report said that my current energy use was 339 kWh per square meter (/m2) per year, but then calculated that I could potentially save 339 kWh/m2 per year! The report recommended three ways that I could improve my home’s efficiency. None of them cost less than 800 euros (approximately $580). The three recommendations were to replace all the single-glazed windows (which I can’t, because it is a conservation house); to add 50 mm (2 inches) of internal or external wall insulation (I can’t make external changes, and to add internal insulation would cost more than I even want to think about); and to install PV panels on the roof (which I can’t— once again—because it is a conservation house). Replacing the windows (if I could do it) would save me 58 euros (approximately $42) a year. The report did not include a payback estimate, but you can guess. The wall insulation would save me 280 euros (approximately $204) a year (again there was no payback estimate). The PV panels would save me 51 euros (approximately $37) a year.

A few years ago, when I was considering installing PV, I went to a PV dealer who calculated that the simple payback would be 25 years. So even if I were not in a conservation area, that one would be a no-brainer. If I followed all three of the report’s recommendations, I could get my rating up to a C. But I’m not sure my bank manager or my financial advisor would be happy with the investment.

The energy performance certificate went directly from the auditor to my real estate agent. Interestingly, the certificate was not used in marketing the house. The potential buyers, when the house went on the market, were not told the rating because they didn’t specifically asked for it. I met a few of the potential buyers, but not one asked about the thermal efficiency of the house. They were more interested in the colors we used on the walls.

So I don’t know if getting the certificate did me a lot of good. All I know is that the auditor grumbled that there are 5 times more auditors in England than the market needs, and that he wasn’t getting enough business. He complained that the qualification process is practically a farce. It certainly didn’t help the potential buyer or me. I understand that in Germany, you are entitled to all sorts of soft loans, grants, and technical advice when you get an energy audit—but in England, no such luck.

Undoubtedly, there is a need to transform the building sector into a more efficient and sustainable one. In order to achieve this transformation, the auditors, real estate professionals and others need to provide solid advice to the owner and to the prospective buyer. And governments and their partners need to provide grants and loans to help homeowners to implement the recommendations.

As I write, my house stands vacant; it has not sold so far. The financial crisis has hit with a vengeance. And the price of natural gas (the fuel used for our boiler) is still at a record high. One would have thought the certificate would have meant more to buyers, and would have provided sellers with more benefits.

The European Commission has just come out with some revisions to the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive. They recognize that member states should introduce mechanisms and incentives to ensure that the directives are met. But compliance will be hard to enforce. You would think it would be a no-brainer for countries to enforce efficiency standards, because improving the thermal efficiency of existing homes can do so much to improve energy security and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll get there—but meanwhile, we have frustrated owners like me, scratching our heads wondering why the auditing and labelling process just frustrates us, without saving a single kWh. So right now, I feel more sinned against than sinning. And no one wins that way.

Rod Janssen worked in the Office of Energy Conservation in Canada during the first oil crisis. In 1983, he and his wife moved to Paris, where he worked with the International Energy Agency. He headed the first international evaluation of energy efficiency policies and programs. Mr. Janssen has been an independent energy and environment consultant since 1988, based in Paris, then in London, and now back in Paris. He is a member of the board of the European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy.

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