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Display Energy Certificates expose Government attitudes to energy efficiency

ImageSince their introduction in October, DECS have revealed that many prominent public buildings are appallingly energy inefficient. What message is this sending to the British public?

Over recent months, the consistency of the political rhetoric about the importance of not wasting energy has been impressive. As have been the various reasons given to motivate us to action: ecological danger, financial prudence, social welfare, import reduction.

But, to be truly effective, all this high flown exhortation needs one key ingredient in order to succeed. We need unequivocal assurance: are our political leaders practising what they preach?

Walk the walk or talk the talk

Fortunately, since October it has become very easy to tell if they are really walking the walk. Or just talking the talk. To find out, it has simply been a matter of visiting any building open to the public, where the fuel bills are paid for in whole or in part out of public funds.

In the foyer, displayed “in a prominent manner”, is to be found the building’s energy performance certificate. Offices, schools, hospitals, museums, town halls, and even our great Departments of State. Eighteen thousand of them. Each has to post the latest operational rating of the building.

At first glance, such ratings look just like the coloured A to G scales we have long grown used to seeing on washing machines or refrigerators. The objective is to stimulate just the kind of market transformation in the buildings sector that has taken place in the white goods industry since such labels were introduced. It is now well nigh impossible to find anything below a B rated refrigerator for sale. Indeed so much have such electrical goods improved, we now see the inflationary A+ or even A++ markings regularly in the shops.

Display energy certificates assess a building’s fuel consumption as an operational rating on a sliding scale. The rating provides the official indication of how a building is actually performing in energy and carbon terms.

Cost-effective investments

The ratings are not prepared in a vacuum. With the rating comes an advisory report, pointing out what investments need to be made to improve the buildings performance. These changes must be deemed to be cost-effective. Of course, that phrase covers a multitude of sins. In some spheres, such cost-effectiveness can be calculated factoring in the presumed cost of carbon saved, as well as the actual kilowatt hours. And the calculation can last the lifetime of the energy saving artefact, which in the case of many fabric improvements is the same as the lifetime of the building in question. Others merely restate the familiar payback time on today’s fuel bills – thereby negating any investment not returning the capital within a couple of years.

There is certainly room for improvement. Of the first 3,200 certificates recorded, only 22 were A rated, less than 1%.

Consequently, included in the Climate Change Act was a last minute addition, designed to try to turn the public sector into rather more of an exemplar. For years, ministers have promised to ensure that all buildings under central government control are within the top quartile of energy performance. At present, qualifying could mean getting as low a rating as a C.

Justification needed

The new obligation means that, if any government organisation opts to take up a lease in a building below that top quartile, it must publish a clear justification as to why it has chosen such a profligate building.

Interestingly, one of the first such entities which will need to meet this challenge is the new Committee on Climate Change. It is currently based at Number 3, Whitehall Place. Its building has one of the very worst of the G ratings yet recorded. Fortunately the Committee is due to move later this spring. As the voice of our collective ecological conscience, it will need to make sure that is into an exemplar building.

And its present hosts, the Department of Energy & Climate Change, will surely feel compelled to improve the energy performance of Number 3, Whitehall Place well before next October.

Government way off target

The National Audit Office is chastising government departments for slowing down progress on energy efficiency. Indeed, 17 out of 21 departments are not on track to meet their own target to improve energy efficiency by 15% this decade. And 15 are actually less energy efficient than in 2000. Even showpiece retrofits like those at the Treasury and at the Communities department still achieve only a derisory E rating.

Overall, it is clear that the report card on our public buildings’ energy management record is firmly in the “Must Do Much Better” category. This is not just because we as taxpayers are losing out from such fuel profligacy. It is also because the message such laxness is sending is still that the government is not serious about energy conservation. And that, for all the reasons I gave at the start, is a very foolish message to be sending.

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