Posted by Robert Cohen

Another EPBD recast: flogging a dead horse or backing a winner

As the third recast of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) will be published next month, Technical Director, Dr Robert Cohen reviews the updates and the post-Brexit challenges for businesses in the UK. He questions whether the directive is really going to achieve the actual emissions reductions we need, as yet again it shies away from an operational rating scheme.

The Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) came into force in 2003, its fourth iteration will be published in 2024

Back in 2001, the first European Directive aimed at improving the energy performance of buildings was published in draft form. It came into force almost unscathed in 2003 and from 2008 was the foundation stone for the mandatory use of energy performance certificates (EPCs) across the EU when buildings are constructed, sold or let. Known as the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD), it became the main regulatory tool in all EU countries for policy makers tackling energy and climate issues in the buildings sector.

The EPBD demanded much else besides energy performance certificates, such as minimum standards for new buildings and for refurbishments of existing buildings over 1000 m2, inspections of boilers and HVAC systems, etc.. The EU “subsidiarity” principle, always pointedly ignored by Brexiteers, ensured each Member State could adopt different means to achieve the same ends set by the Directive. The UK, for example, introduced both EPCs and DECs.

Over the intervening years, the EPBD has twice been ‘recast’, in 2010 and 2018, aiming to close loopholes, clarify grey areas and leverage policies to improve the whole building stock, rather than just individual buildings. Now a third recast is to be published in OJEU in June 2024, coming into force in 2026, soberingly a full 25 years after the EPBD was launched.

Brexit prevents the UK from influencing the EPBD which does not focus enough on real performance outcomes. The vital ambition to improve our whole building stock is being further dulled by the UK government no longer progressing building energy efficiency policies and by statistics on performance across EU countries no longer including the UK.

Although Brexit has divorced the UK from the direct effects of a new EPBD, the legacies of EPBDs enacted during our time in the EU remain ingrained in our legislation. Although many UK-based organisations and individuals own or occupy properties in the EU, regrettably we are no longer able to influence the direction of travel which we managed to do most effectively when members of the club (despite what Brexiteers alleged). Possibly worse, our current government no longer feels the need to progress building energy efficiency policies. These were previously developed to meet the drumbeat of the requirements and deadlines of EPBD recasts. Also, we are now less subject to the peer competition amongst many countries to be seen to have the best implementation and outcomes in the EU: lamentably and still shockingly, the statistics showing how each EU country is performing (on any matter) of course no longer include the UK.

There are many aspects of the draft text of the third recast which are to be welcomed [Questions and Answers on the revised EPBD]. But arguably, the withdrawal of UK influence is one reason for the latest recast to look like a lost opportunity for the content of the EPBD to actually reflect what it says on the tin. That would surely aim to focus attention on real performance outcomes. Instead, it seems to double down on improving the theoretical performance of buildings. This risks another triumph of hope over experience, if the objective is to make buildings need less energy in operation and thereby be responsible for fewer emissions. It can’t be avoided that to improve actual performance, you have to assess actual performance, not some proxy disconnected from the real world by the performance gap.

Policy makers in the EU acknowledge their duty to citizens to try to ensure that dwellings and places of work or leisure can in theory be kept comfortable without using excessive amounts of energy. But they are not yet prepared to mandate procedures like public disclosure of actual performance which reveal if the owners and/or occupiers of buildings keep their side of the bargain in support of a just transition to net zero. Moderating energy use and associated emissions in reality are of course what matters when it comes to the physics of climate science.

Laggards have the potential to sabotage the achievement of net zero by the buildings sector. It is notable that the recast recognises this by requiring minimum energy performance standards for non-residential buildings which focus on the renovation of the worst-performing non-residential buildings – they do have the highest potential in terms of decarbonisation! Maximum energy use intensities (EUIs) must be set for each type of building based on current statistics and by 2030 no building should have an EUI higher than the level of the worst 16 % today. By 2033 the threshold ratchets down to the level of the worst 26 % today. However, EUIs can be based on calculated theoretical performance and exemptions are allowed in cases of “unfavourable cost-benefit assessment”.

NABERS has a proven track record of actually achieving emissions reduction and tackles the challenges that the EPBD does not address.

Any worldwide search for the most effective national building energy rating scheme with a proven track record of achieving energy and emissions reductions would surely alight on NABERS in Australia, which boasts especially striking results for the offices sector, although ratings are available for a dozen other sectors too. The USPs of NABERS are a laser-focus on measured performance outcomes to determine ratings, care to provide a level playing field to take into account how intensively a building is being used and delineating the object of the rating to align with the scope over which a party has control and/or responsibility.

The EPBD has never recognised the challenges created by constrained agency to improve energy performance intrinsic to the many buildings (the majority in most sectors) which are not owned, operated and occupied by the same entity or individuals. Also in contrast to NABERS, the EPBD does not try to associate the scope of a rating with typical metering arrangements, even though the forthcoming recast does nod to the relevance of doing so:

Member States may use metered energy consumption under typical operating conditions to verify the correctness of the calculated energy use and enable comparison between calculated and actual performance.

Many actors across the EU advocate using metered energy for the energy performance certificates of existing buildings. When the EPBD was first introduced, several major EU countries (eg the UK and Germany, but also France, Denmark and Finland) did use whole building operational energy data for the EPCs of existing non-residential buildings, including public buildings which had to display their certificate to visitors – this being the function of Display Energy Certificates (DECs) in the UK.

Under pressure from the EC, sadly these operational energy approaches were gradually phased out so the EC could prioritise a theoretical calculation of EPCs harmonised across all Member States and all sectors, new and existing buildings, one size fits all based on standard conditions of use. The recast EPBD coming in June may be a final consolidation of this approach. Is it just a sop to those preferring to see the meaning of the energy performance of buildings to be their actual performance measured by meters, that it allows metered energy data to be an item shown on the EPC? 

Perhaps, in fact, there is hope in the wording of Annex I of the 2024 recast. This is the critical section which sets down the general framework for the calculation of the energy performance of buildings which must be used to produce energy performance certificates. This appears to leave the door open to using metered energy for EPCs:

The energy performance of a building shall be determined on the basis of calculated or metered energy use and shall reflect typical energy use for space heating, space cooling, domestic hot water, ventilation, built-in lighting and other technical building systems. Member States shall ensure that the typical energy use is representative of actual operating conditions for each relevant typology and reflects the typical user behaviour.

Where metered energy use is the basis for calculating the energy performance of buildings, the calculation methodology shall be capable of identifying the influence of the behaviour of occupants and the local climate, which shall not be reflected in the result of the calculation.

As has happened since the EPBD was first introduced, the exact meaning of its text is subject to word-by-word scrutiny and interpretation by national policy makers and their legal advisers prior to its transposition into national regulations. If a Member State were determined to adopt a national operational rating scheme similar to NABERS for energy certification, maybe, just maybe, this would be welcomed by the European Commission and not subjected to infraction proceedings.