Energizing the building stock

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How buildings can contribute to the energy transition

Energy production, agriculture, industry, transportation – the usual suspects when we think of the causes of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Buildings don’t come to mind as a potential culprit, even though their share of GHG emissions in Austria was the same (10%) as that of agriculture in 2019, having increased by 3% compared to the year prior. A similar trend can be observed globally: energy-related CO2 emissions from buildings reached an all-time high in 2019, according to Tracking Buildings 2020, a report published by the International Energy Agency.

Rising energy consumption in the building sector

Increasingly frequent extreme weather events (such as heatwaves) and growing demand for energy services (e.g. electricity for cooling and appliances) are seen as the two key factors responsible for the growth in the energy consumption of the buildings sector, and neither of them can be wished away. It’s not all doom and gloom, however, because buildings have the potential to help reduce CO2 emissions and to contribute to achieving a carbon neutral future. We can, and should, exploit that potential.

Substantial need for renovation in Austria

There are 2.5 million buildings in Austria. According to Johannes Wahlmüller of GLOBAL 2000, an independent environmental organization, 40% of them should be improved in terms of energy efficiency. Additionally, he says, emissions and energy costs could be reduced by 60 to 70% in buildings that have been particularly badly renovated. Poor insulation and heat loss go hand in hand; the majority of the CO2 emissions, however, is caused by oil-fired heating systems and gas-fired boilers: Statistics Austria data shows that 626,109 and 900,000 are still in operation, respectively. With Austria hoping to achieve carbon neutrality by 2040, these systems aren’t only environmentally unsustainable, but will eventually be outlawed. It’s time for a changeover.

Legal obstacles

Bringing about a major shift is never without challenges. Renovating existing buildings in order to decarbonize them and building new, energy-efficient ones carry not only technological and economic but also legal implications.  Much like energy efficiency, regulations need to be improved, too. A single owner, for example, shouldn’t be allowed to block the renovation of an entire residential building. At the same time, you can’t force anyone to meet costs that are beyond their financial means, even though they would benefit from saving money in the long run. Such dilemmas must be resolved, and it’s equally important to debunk the myth that building energy-efficiently is more expensive. Umweltbundesamt, the German Environment Agency, published a study in December 2020 entitled “13 Theses for a Greenhouse Gas-Neutral Building Stock.” It cites the findings of the government’s Commission to Reduce Construction Costs: a rise in costs during construction and refurbishment projects is largely caused by general price increases; energy requirements contribute only a few percentage points.

No utopia, but already reality today

Several projects have demonstrated that both renovating and building climate-neutrally are technically feasible, and thanks to the wide range of technologies we can now choose the ideal solution for the thermal conditioning of buildings, both residential and non-residential. The ultimate goal is to ensure that the building sector not only consumes energy, but also produces it. Buildings must be converted into climate-neutral, self-sufficient systems that are “settlements” rather than individual houses, and are capable of supplying energy themselves. This may have sounded like a utopia even as recently as a few years ago, but projects to build such residential buildings are already underway. For instance, “Freiraum Freistadt” in Freistadt, Upper Austria, is a 25-unit residential complex, one of the most modern in the country due to its innovative energy concept:  an installed photovoltaic system that relies on our battery storage and NTUITY’s smart energy management platform, making the entire building completely self-sustaining.

The energy transition is charging ahead and the building stock can now help it progress at an even faster speed.

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