Display Energy Certificates bring clear benefits . . . so why the reluctance of governments?

The EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive calls for two types of energy certificates. One is for public buildings and it allows the public to see the improvements made in energy performance. When the directive was being negotiated 15 years ago, Britain was definitely amongst the leaders. Compliance may be patchy, but DECs bring clear benefits, argues Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, after a remarkably lengthy consultation the government would be mad to water them down.   Unfortunately, this problem is quite common throughout the EU, one imagines.


The case for Display Energy Certificates is clear – so why is the government’s consultation taking so long

How long does it take government to respond formally to a public consultation exercise it originally described as urgent? In the case of the Department for Communities and Local Government and its consultation on “improving the Display Energy Certificates regime for public buildings”, the answer is already over 12 months. And we are still waiting.

If you don’t measure your energy usage, you can’t hope to manage it effectively. Is there an energy manager who wouldn’t accept that this simple mantra is the core of their activities?

Some 15 years ago I chaired an inter-governmental, inter-professional taskgroup on sustainable construction and energy efficiency, for the Enterprise Directorate of the European Commission. Two years later practically all our recommendations had been formally approved by all European Governments and the European Parliament. And formed the cornerstone of the Energy Performance of Buildings directive.

Central to this was the requirement that actual fuel usage performance in each public or commercial building should regularly be measured and monitored, to enable it to be properly managed. To ensure this happened, my taskgroup recommended – and the Directive endorsed – that all buildings visited by members of the public should regularly measure, then display their performance certificate “in a prominent place”.

Since 2008, all such buildings over 1,000 square metres occupied by the public sector are supposed not just to have an energy inspection each year. But also to display the results prominently. And more recently the Directive was revised to cover privately occupied buildings where the occupier had changed.

Sadly this is a requirement with which only a minority of managers of public buildings have complied. In only one in eight public buildings has the law been consistently obeyed.

Recently, researchers from the Bartlett School of University College London (UCL) examined the 73,160 display energy certificates from 31,802 separate buildings that were formally deposited during the first four years of the scheme. They established that only 12 per cent of eligible buildings had DECs for each of these four years.

Even more worrying was the apparent failure to obtain any DEC for almost half the relevant buildings ever, let alone renew it each year: there are around 58,000 such A to G certificates that ought to be being issued each year. Tellingly, nobody has ever been prosecuted for that breach of the law.

It was on March 11 2015 that the Communities and Local Government Department launched a very short public consultation into “improving and simplifying” Display Energy Certificates (DECs). Unusually there was no formal press release to announce its existence, let alone the customary parliamentary statement.

Despite this suspicious reticence, it provoked an enormous backlash. This was largely because of the negativity of the entire consultation document, proposing certificates only each decade, or scrapping them altogether.

Objections came from professional bodies like the Chartered Institution of Building Service Engineers, the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Property and Energy Professionals Association, the UK Green Building Council, and the Alliance of Energy Assessor Associations.

Unusually there was also a magisterial intervention from the Chairman of the government’s formal advisory committee on climate change, the former Conservative environment secretary Lord Deben. He wrote that his committee had seen absolutely no evidence that would support weakening the legislation, and chastised the Department for failing even to consider options that would actually strengthen compliance.

“DECs are an important tool for identifying energy efficiency opportunities, and limiting the impact of rising energy prices upon public finances,” he said. “They are unique in that they show operational energy demand, benchmarked against building type.”

Watering down the requirements, let alone abolishing the need for DECs, ran, Lord Deben said, the “risk of incurring long-term liabilities for minimal short-term gain”.

Certainly, the consultation’s cost-benefit analysis was completely one-sided. It highlighted the cost of having a DEC, but not their benefits in terms of triggering energy saving activity.

Although it may be difficult to say categorically how much the presence of a DEC per se influences reductions in energy use, the UCL study showed definitively that in those buildings where DEC compliance was taken seriously, and their DEC renewed every year, collectively substantial energy savings were achieved that completely outweighed the relatively trivial cost of each energy survey.

When DECs were first introduced, the original UK Statutory Instrument Explanatory Memorandum justified their annual renewal as cost effective (as against any 10 year renewal) by estimating the increased energy savings DECs would generate. Table 14 of that document estimates annual DECs to be more cost beneficial by £457m net present value. Its Annex C set out all the reasons why DECs are preferred to EPCs and why annual renewal is the most cost effective option.

For some curious reason, the “public consultation” made reference neither to that initial impact assessment, nor to the subsequent empirical study from UCL.

Perhaps the biggest indictment of all was the failure even to consider how the existence of an annual DEC has improved the rating of the Communities Department’s own Midlands HQ at St Philips Place, Birmingham, where a low G rating in 2009, improved to an E in 2010, a D in 2011, and a C in 2012. This means that building will be emitting far fewer greenhouse gases than before. And its lower fuel bills will mean that it is operating at a far lower cost to the taxpayer.

Although no information has been released, I am in no doubt that when eventually published, it will be revealed that the vast majority of responses received will have told that Department they would be mad to alter DECs. Instead compliance efforts should be strengthened – and extended to cover the private sector too.

After a year of detailed consideration, we must assume that the new Communities Secretary, Greg Clark will have enough sense to overrule officials, and listen to the external voices of experience.

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