Opinion - 04/July/2023

Unlocking the superpower of buildings

Europe’s built environment is the single largest consumer of energy. It is also one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. But while the building stock’s carbon footprint may be big, it also has a superpower that can be unlocked using energy-efficient renovations, says David Ducarme from Knauf Insulation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of FORESIGHT Climate & Energy

For energy efficiency to be more than an afterthought, it needs to be viewed as another element in the power mix

According to calculations by the Buildings Performance Institute of Europe (BPIE), the relatively simple act of renovating residential homes with proper insulation would result in a 44% reduction in the amount of natural gas used for heating.

This is not only a substantial decrease in energy consumption, but it is also a big decrease in associated carbon emissions—a decrease that would help put Europe on track to becoming the world’s first climate-neutral continent. This is the superpower of buildings.

But unlocking this power requires policies that deliver energy efficiency, which is why the revision of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) could not be timelier.



The EPBD revision is a unique opportunity to establish a clear and predictable roadmap towards the full decarbonisation of buildings. It should start by differentiating between building types.

By applying different minimum energy performance requirements for new and old buildings, we can ensure that the least efficient buildings are renovated first, as this is where the biggest energy savings can be achieved the fastest. But it is not enough to just renovate a home, we also need to ensure that these renovations produce the intended energy savings that society pays for.

Such accountability can be achieved by leveraging available digital solutions like energy efficiency metres. To illustrate this, as part of a renovation project of multifamily buildings in Tienen, Belgium, we insulated the roofs and walls of over 160 units.

Energy efficiency metres were installed before and after the renovation to verify the insulation was achieving the promised energy savings. And it was.

The renovation resulted in a 36% average improvement in energy efficiency per home, which translates to €1000 saved per household per year—a direct win for the community. This data is invaluable, not only to the individual homeowners but to the public authorities investing in energy efficiency renovation policies.

After all, what can be measured can be compared and, with digital solutions like energy efficiency metres, we can measure energy efficiency the same way we measure energy produced.



We know that the more efficient the building, the more energy is saved. But why stop there? As these savings means less energy produced, energy efficiency should also be seen as a source of clean energy.

Energy efficiency needs to not only be included in the energy mix, but given equal footing to other energy carriers. The key word here though is “seen”.

If you look at any graph, chart or spreadsheet breaking down Europe’s energy mix, you will see percentages for oil, natural gas, renewables, and so on.

What you will not see is energy efficiency. And if something is not visible, it will not be prioritised.

Making efficiency clearly visible within the energy mix is an essential step to prioritising energy-efficient retrofitting of buildings, which is why the reform of the EU Electricity Market Design Regulation must recognise its role not just from the consumption side—but also from the production side.




Prioritising the energy-efficient retrofitting of buildings will also ensure that our building stock is ready to support the energy transition, including the shift from gas to electric heating solutions—a shift being driven by the REPowerEU initiative’s goal of installing 30 million heat pumps by 2030.

Because heat pumps use electricity to concentrate heat potential, they can support the EU’s decarbonisation efforts while also reducing our dependency on fossil fuel imports. It stands to reason that replacing gas boilers with electric heat pumps would reduce both the building stock’s energy use and total emissions.

Unfortunately, without thermally efficient building envelopes, this is easier said than done. Heat pumps are a key part of Europe’s energy transition.

Yet, shifting domestic heating from gas to electric creates a capacity challenge: in a decarbonised grid fed by variable renewable energy sources, there will be times when power generation is simply not enough to meet peak demand, for example during a cold winter evening with no wind.

But by investing in energy-efficiency renovations, we can save on grid capacity generation and reduce the peak price for both households and industries. This shows how energy-efficient building renovations can also help make Europe more competitive.



Saving energy, decreasing emissions, reducing our dependency on foreign gas, increasing European competitiveness and enabling the energy transition—buildings have the potential to be the true superheroes of the Green Deal.

By making energy-efficient renovations a central part of the EPBD and related initiatives, we can turn this potential into power, the power to not only achieve our immediate climate objectives but also for navigating what comes next.

Because even if we succeed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions to at least 55% below 1990 levels by 2030, there is still a long way to go to becoming climate neutral and ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

This is why it would be nice to have a superhero on our side.

If you have a thoughtful response to the opinions expressed here or if you have an idea for a thought leadership article regarding an aspect of the global energy transition, please send a short pitch of 200 words outlining your thoughts and credentials to: opinion@foresightdk.com.


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