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The Question: How can smart, flexible buildings help us reach net zero?

The Active Building Centre hosted a panel at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow this week, contributing to the global conversation about how to reshape our world by bringing together industry and government experts to ask how smart, flexible buildings can help us reach net zero.

Speakers at the event, which was hosted at UK Green Building Council’s Virtual Pavilion and chaired by Hywel Lloyd, the Active Building Centre’s Head of Government Engagement, were:

  • Emily Bourne, Director for Energy Systems and Networks at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS)
  • Charlotte Ramsay from the Full Chain Flexibility Team at Ofgem
  • Dr Kate Carter, Member of the Edinburgh Energy Group School of Architecture, at the University Edinburgh
  • Joanna Clarke, University of Swansea and Author of the Active Building Design Guide

The panel focused on the potential of a system of smart buildings in which, in the words of Emily Bourne from BEIS, “buildings will shift from being passive dispensers of energy to active nodes in the energy system, reacting to signals to optimise the system,” and on how this can be delivered to its full potential.

“Serious challenges”

The panellists were united, as delegates are across the conference, in their recognition of the scale of the challenges facing the construction industry in particular. As Emily Bourne, who leads work on Energy Systems and Networks at BEIS, noted, we need to make huge changes across the energy system to achieve the net zero goals, with buildings, which make up 40% of all emissions in the UK, a vital part of doing so.

A key challenge to this is the sheer number of buildings, with Charlotte Ramsay from Ofgem highlighting that there are over 30 million in the UK alone, and arguing that “we’re seeing some really big challenges coming.” Added to this, as the ABC’s Hywel Lloyd explained, buildings are arguably the hardest sector to decarbonise, owing to the large number of actors which need to be influenced to make the required changes.

While there was broad agreement on the need for buildings to move to clean heat, this also brings its own challenges. In addition to the need to reduce emissions, the changes being made to do so are likely to place significant further demand, with Emily Bourne from BEIS estimating that electricity use will have to double by 2050.

Making the changes to buildings systems to make them greener was of course a key concern of all the panel, Swansea University’s Joanna Clarke also raised the point that changes to buildings need to be commercially viable, and in the interests of those living in the buildings. Dr Kate Carter from Edinburgh University highlighted the many costs of adapting the entire buildings system, and the risk of these being passed on to consumers, making clear the challenge of a transition to smart systems which is not only effective but fair.

“Radical energy efficiency”

There was, then, clear agreement on the scale of the challenge which the transition to a smart, flexible buildings system, presents, as well as its necessity.

However, the clear theme of the session was the opportunity which active buildings present to help meet these challenges. Dr Kate Carter from Edinburgh University estimated that, if we start by making the right changes to our building fabric, we can reduce energy demand by up to 80%, leading to a truly radical change in our energy systems. While the panel did not shy away from the daunting nature of such a task, Dr Carter was clear that, with the technology which places like the Active Building Centre are working on, such a change is “feasible.”

As Charlotte Ramsay from Ofgem highlighted, if we are able to move to a flexible system with connected resources including buildings, and grid users within buildings, then we can unlock a massive reduction in system costs – and the ABC’s own Hywel Lloyd concurred, noting that there is a lot of opportunity to do this, owing to the huge variety of work on the issues across the sector.

The new technologies, if deployed properly, could also help to alleviate fuel poverty, and Dr Carter was enthusiastic about the potential for the smart evolution of buildings, through new technology, to help build fairness into the system and reduce fuel costs, so long as parity of access is assured.

“Rich opportunity”

Summing up, the ABC’s Hywel Lloyd focused on the progress that has been made, and the technologies which present the chance for more progress. As with COP26 more widely, the challenges are daunting but, from the ABC’s point of view, they are also feasible.

A visual of the discussion was created by Chapple Cartoons