By Dan Cook, Chief Executive of the Active Building Centre
At the Active Building Centre, we are focused on the interplay between national energy security, carbon emissions and the ways in which we can power our buildings now and into the future. We look at every question about energy security through the lens of how our homes and buildings can help with generation, storage and demand management. Conversely, every question about our homes and buildings is considered in terms of energy supply and demand.
But, of course, not everyone is conditioned to think like this. In fact, the absence of this joined-up thinking about construction, buildings and energy, across both government and industry, is precisely why our organisation was founded.
All of which brings us to our takeaways from the Queen’s Speech last week. The Government views that its new Energy Bill, announced as part of its new legislative agenda, will be seen as the next major step on the road to net zero.
Plans announced last week only address part of the problems we are facing. What was missing from the speech was a holistic understanding of how we can not only generate energy, but also manage its consumption. To solve the current crisis, it’s not just a matter of bringing new energy sources online; it’s also a case of looking at what uses the energy, such as buildings, ensuring they are properly insulated, then optimising their demand and hopefully also then enable them to contribute to our supply.
The good news
First, the good news. Supply-side reforms to our current centralised energy systems are commendable. Redesigning our energy infrastructure, and essentially nationalising the National Grid, will make it easier to manage our energy supply. This will be vital as we continue to see greater demands on the Grid from more electric vehicles and other technologies.
The Government also plans to generate more power from renewable sources, and take steps to better deal with the increased demand for energy which heat pumps and electric cars will bring, including appointing Ofgem to regulate heat networks. And BEIS, which sets these strategies, recently announced that it was moving to a new building which will be heated by a network of efficient heat pumps. So, encouragingly, there is some understanding of the benefits of making buildings active amongst policymakers.
Increasing renewable generation is the right thing to do, and will help build our energy security in the long term. Government figures suggest that the proportion of our energy produced by renewables has quadrupled since 2010. This is unequivocally good news, but it is great to see Government recognise that there is still further to go. Meanwhile encouraging carbon capture technologies will also make a positive, invaluable contribution to the journey to net zero.
However, there is far more which the Government could, and should, have included in its Energy Bill. If the Queen’s Speech sets out the agenda for the year to come, then there are some notable omissions, not least an understanding of the contributions which buildings can and must make.
The new Energy Bill focuses on formalising strategies which we have already heard about: the Energy Security Strategy and the Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution. These weren’t enough to reach net zero and energy security the first time round, and nor are they now. The global energy situation has deteriorated even further since these plans were first announced. The Government needs to think seriously about both demand and supply management, even more urgently than before.
For instance, if we manage our energy systems effectively – especially in buildings – then we can not only reduce demand but, through joined-up thinking and new technologies, also increase supply. By bringing energy generation literally in-house, we can simultaneously reduce our dependence on other sources of fuels, and hence boost our energy security. However, the agenda for the year ahead fails to take account of these opportunities.
While we are making some progress on, for example, expanding wind and other clean sources of power, these are long-term, major infrastructure projects and, crucially, are focused almost entirely on the supply side. The Government can and must do more to consider the demands which we place on the grid, and not just the grid itself.
A holistic approach
By tinkering with one side of the equation, through projects which are arguably too experimental or long-term to give any immediate impact, we are missing easy wins which could benefit us all.
At the Active Building Centre, we have demonstrated the technologies which can help greatly reduce buildings’ energy demand, revolutionise how buildings can store energy and make them net contributors to the grid. The technologies already exist: it’s simply about joining them up in a smart way.
Sketch produced by Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects
This isn’t experimental. We’re seeing it in action in new housing developments, private and public, across the country, and we have regular conversations with senior civil servants about how to turn our government’s vast estate into a hive of energy generation.
But the Queen’s Speech and its accompanying explanatory notes make no mention of retrofitting, and only one, brief, reference to supporting the decarbonisation of our building stock.
What the new Energy Bill is missing, then, is a serious, joined-up approach to making these technologies a reality across the country. We need to incentivise the mass retrofit of our existing building stock. But we also need to stop adding to the enormous backlog of buildings requiring retrofitting, by doing more to encourage best-in-practice building techniques and design of their energy systems at the earliest stages. We are also going to need accelerated support for training programmes for the new skills to support design, building and management of green energy.
We were hoping for a new Planning Bill, as this may have been an ideal opportunity for the Government to raise standards across the board, support local energy plans and encourage the joined-up green energy technology systems which we know reduce demand and add to supply for new builds in particular.
We can rearrange the sources of our power all we want, but until we take these simple steps to reduce the demands on these sources, then we will struggle to achieve the reduction in energy demand which we need to reach net zero and deliver national energy security.
The Queen’s Speech, laudably, restated the need for a transition to “cheaper, cleaner and more secure energy”. What we have seen last week is merely a start towards that aim – not the complete solution. As well as the power plants and new technologies which ministers are right to invest in, we urge government to do more thinking about energy solutions as part of people’s homes and workplaces.