Wednesday 17 January 2018

What is Energiesprong?

Deeply revealing - the depth of the window reveals indicate the thickness of insulation in warm, comfortable Energiesprong homes.  Image: Energiesprong International


Could this Idea from the Netherlands Crack the Toughest Challenge in Energy Efficiency?

Into the gaping hole in UK energy efficiency policy (see previous blog) left by the UK government inaction and disinterest springs Energiesprong, a concept that originates in the Netherlands and could totally revolutionise the way we approach domestic energy efficiency.

Energiesprong translates as 'Energy Leap', and in contrast to the piecemeal, step by step approach that UK government has been trying to prod us down, Energiesprong aims to do it all in one go.  An Energiesprong refurbishment must meet five simple requirements:

  1. The finished house should be zero energy - over the course of each year it generates sufficient energy to heat the house, provide hot water and power household appliances.
  2. The renovation work is done in only one week
  3. The residents do not have to leave their property while the work is going on
  4. The work is covered by a 30-year warranty covering the indoor climate and the energy performance of the house
  5. The combined savings from energy bills and maintenance as a result of the renovation should finance the cost of the work

The requirements may be easy to set out, but the technical challenges they present to the construction sector are far from simple.  How to cost effectively making millions of individual and unique homes cosy, comfortable and cheap to run.  Nothing less than a new era of mass-customised construction  is required.

Insulated wall panel being craned into place at the first Energiesprong in the UK
Image: Energiesprong International

The prevailing technical approach to an Energiesprong renovation is for the house to be surveyed externally to millimetre accuracy with laser scanners.  A highly-insulated timber frame cladding system is made in a factory off-site before arriving on a lorry and being lifted into place by a crane and attached to the existing walls.  A new roof, almost always covered with solar panels is lifted on top of the existing roof (sometimes even leaving the old tiles in place).  In effect you build a whole new house around the existing one.

Windows and doors are removed and replaced, and heating systems go electric - typically either heat pump or electric panel heaters, depending on how far the insulation has driven down the space heating demand.  Solar thermal, battery energy storage and ventilation may also figure in designs.

The fourth and fifth requirements are utterly crucial to the whole thing working, as they make it 'investable' .  Residents pay an 'energy services fee' which is the same as their current energy bill, but get a better looking, warmer and more comfortable house.  The goal is for the cost savings on future planned maintenance (e.g. window replacements, roofing renewal, heating system replacement) plus the energy services charge to total up to a figure high enough to be able to give financial markets a sufficient return for financing the upfront costs.  If this can be achieved, then the scope for expansion of the scheme is effectively unlimited.  It works without government support.  It is completely scalable and social landlords can raise private sector finance to refurbish their entire stocks of housing.

Row of Energiesprong homes, Melick, Netherlands. 
Image: Energiesprong International

It is this possibility, of funded deployment at scale that has got the construction industry, social landlords and local authorities so excited about Energiesprong.

Consider the challenges, though.  At the current cost of energy, Energiesprong UK estimates that the whole refurbishment must be done for around £40,000 per house to be properly self-financing.

For this cost point to be reached, serious economies of scale need to be unlocked.

Energiesprong UK, and sister organisations in France, Netherlands and other countries aim to create these economies of scale by encouraging social landlords with large portfolios of property to bring forward volume refurbishment programmes and at the same time encourage the construction sector to develop the innovative products and techniques that will be needed to deliver these projects at low cost.  This stage could then be followed by a roll-out to owner-occupied homes and even new build properties, where the model might finance the difference between building regulations energy efficiency levels and building to zero net energy.

So far, around 2,000 Energiesprong homes have been completed in the Netherlands, of which around 60% were renovations of existing properties and 40% new builds.  The first Energiesprong homes outside of the Netherlands have recently been completed in a pilot of 10 homes in Sneinton, Nottingham by Melius Homes for Nottingham City Homes.

The pilot programmes so far undertaken have cost more than the £40k target, and so have required top-up funding, but the volumes have been relatively small, predominantly pilot programmes.

Implications for Policy and Energy Efficiency

A couple of observations on current approaches to energy efficiency and government policy arise when considering the great potential from Energiesprong.

  1. Many government policies are based on the prevailing concept of a long journey of many small steps.  For example the Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing (EESSH) in Scotland requires social landlords to lift the energy efficiency of all homes, and it is envisaged that the minimum performance will ratchet up in small steps over time. This approach is not compatible with Energiesprong, for which it would make more sense to set targets for the average efficiency of stock.  This would give social landlords the flexibility to refurbish homes to a very high level and work their way through the whole stock year by year.  To allay fuel poverty concerns for people living in the homes that get dealt with later on, perhaps all stock should reach a minimum before an average score could be used.
  2. Funded schemes, such as 'rent-a-roof' solar could be a complete dead end and indeed prove an impediment to the whole-house approach.  If you want to stick a new, cosy roof over an existing one as part of an Energiesprong refurb, but someone has already signed up to a 'free solar' plan which hands over the roof for 25 years to a financier, then you may find that you cannot remove the panels without paying to get out of that contract.  Similar, funded schemes, based on the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), for example for biomass boilers, could also prevent progress, as the RHI payment is based on the heat provided, which would be curtailed in a more energy efficient building.

Before and After.  Energiesprong refurbishment for Lefier Housing Association in the Netherlands. 
Image: Energiesprong International

It's About the Regeneration not the Generation

The main difference between Energiesprong and previous attempts at improving energy efficiency is the potential it provides for the redevelopment of entire streets and localities.

The whole outside of the house is renewed, and as the images show, the improvement can be extraordinary.  The scope for regeneration of tired old housing estates has got social housing providers and local authorities really interested.  Suddenly we're not only talking about energy saving, we're talking about regeneration and investment in the value of housing assets, funded by energy savings.

Consequently, it is possible that even before the £40k/house cost target is reached, significant projects can go ahead by combining with funds earmarked for the redevelopment of deprived areas.

Either way, the possibility of regenerating whole areas, with funding either partially or wholly paid for from future savings on energy bills is revolutionary and well worth reaching for!

Useful Resources

Energiesprong Foundation
Gallery of International Energiesprong Projects
Energiesprong UK
Energiesprong France

Tuesday 16 January 2018

A Brief History of UK Energy Efficiency Policy

The track record of UK initiatives to encourage us to make our homes more energy efficient has been patchy to say the least.

The schemes come and go, but the results are depressingly consistent.


A range of government schemes have required the larger energy providers to invest in energy efficiency measures such as loft and cavity wall insulation for homes. The current version is the Energy Company Obligation (ECO), but before that we had CESP and CERT and others. This bizarre concept - making a business responsible for implementing measures that reduce demand for its own products - seems like putting a fox in charge of security improvements to the chicken coop. It is perhaps unsurprising then that foot-dragging, missed targets and ineffective measures have been the result.

In 2014, many of the energy suppliers were fined for failing to meet their targets to install insulation. British Gas was fined £11million, a development which their PR department brazenly promoted as a charitable donation.  One is left wondering if the energy companies considered these fines a small price to pay rather than helping people spend less on energy.

Measures installed under this scheme crashed by more than 80% after 2012 when a panicking George Osborne announced huge cuts following a Labour proposal to cap the prices people pay for energy.

Green Deal

Greg Barker's Green Deal scheme to 'transform the energy efficiency market' was in trouble almost from the start. Having told us that he'd struggle to sleep if the number of home improvements it financed was less than 10,000 in the first year, the actual number came in at 626.

In what now looks like a rather desperate effort, Greg managed to convince the Treasury to throw in a few hundred millions to the Green Deal Home Improvement Fund (GDHIF), to give a further cash-back grant to householders who installed energy efficiency measures. Most of this stop-start funding was spent on boiler replacements (and how many of these would have happened anyway as they reached end of life is open to debate). The scheme was ignominiously withdrawn after writing only a few thousand energy efficiency loans.

The offer to consumers was complicated and unappealing. The interest rate was a hefty 7%, which compares unfavourably with mortgage finance. Only measures that met the so-called 'Golden Rule' could be fully financed - where the estimated savings on energy bills were greater or the same as the repayments collected through your energy bills. What this all added up to was - go through all the hassle of having all this work done in your house and your energy bills will be about the same as they were before.

The Green Deal Finance Company is now in private hands, but it is still unclear how the new owners will address the fundamental shortcomings of the scheme.

Feed in Tariff and Renewable Heat Incentive

These schemes pay for renewable energy - power and heat where homes and businesses install technologies such as solar PV panels, solar thermal panels, heat pumps and wood chip burning stoves in their homes or businesses. The intention was that these would provide long-lasting and stable support for renewables after a series of start-stop grant schemes that had preceded them.

The Feed in Tariff (FIT) is due to close in 2019 after a tumultuous few years in which government struggled to keep up with rapid reductions in the cost of solar PV panels. As a result of the payments being fixed while the costs fell sharply, the financial returns from the scheme rose rapidly. Returns of 15-20% were not uncommon, payback periods as short as four or five years reported. As more and more people joined the party the budget ballooned. Cue panic in Whitehall, an over-correction on the tariff rates and a return to the boom-bust market from which the scheme was supposed to mark a departure.

The Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) for heat generating renewables came in after the first FIT crisis, and as a result was designed with many more controls to stop a runaway deployment if the tariffs were set too high (with the notable exception of Northern Ireland where the executive for some reason removed the controls and blew the budget - the whole Northern Ireland budget!). In consequence, the RHI suffers from a paucity of ambition and has only resulted in a few tens of thousands of households replacing their heating systems with a low carbon technology (33,500 new domestic installations of solar thermal, heat pump and biomass boiler from April 2014 to November 2017)


The Minimum Energy Efficiency Standard (MEES) applies in England and Wales and requires private landlords of both domestic and non-domestic properties to ensure that their properties meet a minimum level of energy efficiency.  Buildings that do not cannot be re-let after April 2018 and cannot be let at all after April 2020.

Unfortunately, as I revealed in an earlier blog, a landlord can apply for an exemption if they cannot do the required improvements without upfront costs, which relied on the Green Deal being available.  But this has now gone, leaving a loop-hole in the legislation so large you could drive an un-insulated house with broken windows through it.  Similar legislation being consulted upon in Scotland only deals with domestic properties, but sensibly places a limit on the maximum cost for a landlord.  So far, there's no apparent interest in fixing this mess at Westminster.


The Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing (EESSH) is legislation in Scotland that requires social housing providers to ensure that their housing stock is all above a minimum energy efficiency level by the end of December 2020, with an intention to gradually ramp up the required levels over time.

EESSH looks like its already producing some significant investments in Scottish social housing.  It really does look like the one to watch, at least of all the schemes listed.

Is There Another Way?

What all these schemes have in common is that they deal piecemeal with the challenge of making our buildings more energy efficient. They imagine that the 'journey' to having an energy efficient home fit for the future is taken one small step after another. First insulate your cavity walls and loft. Then change your boiler to an efficient new one. Have some solar panels on that roof. Now replace your whole radiator system take out your efficient new boiler and fit a heat pump.

Many also rely on government spending, a fickle foundation upon which to base investments in housing stocks or to build long-term business plans (as those of us in the solar industry will attest).

With the demise of the Green Deal, and no sign of anything to replace it, there's a huge hole in the government's policy to meet forthcoming carbon budgets. This is not something that has gone unnoticed by the government's own Committee on Climate Change (CCC), which in its 2017 report gave government policy for residential energy efficiency a red light for able to pay households and an amber light for low income households.

It is into this gaping hole left by the UK government inaction and disinterest springs Energiesprong.  This is a concept that originates in the Netherlands that could totally revolutionise the way we approach domestic energy efficiency and it is the subject of my next blog.