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Our Parliament’s boiler control – an open window

ImageA proposed European directive on end-use energy efficiency would make big changes to the way we use energy, not least in the heart of Westminster

For the past three years, I have chaired an action group called the Sustainable Energy Partnership. Its members are drawn from a variety of backgrounds. MPs, members of the House of Lords, trade unionists, employers, trade bodies, social welfare advocates, environmentalists, representatives of the “green” wing of each of the political parties: all are active.

We keep in touch mostly be email and letter. Our role is quite simply to agitate for, and then support, nationwide initiatives designed to deliver more energy conservation, more CHP, more renewables. Every eight weeks or so we cease being a “virtual” organisation, and meet – usually in one of the rooms of the House of Commons.

It was one of the most recent of these that precipitated an incident, which has come to crystallise in my mind precisely why we need to keep campaigning. The day was a particularly cold one. But the massive radiators in our room were working overtime. Each of us attending had taken off jerseys and jackets. But we were still sweltering.

One MP present had had enough. She left the room, returning a few minutes later followed by a man in overalls. He interrupted us. “I gather you are having a problem with the heating in this room?” he observed, somewhat gratuitously given the perspiring figures within.

We all groaned assent. “That’s very simple to deal with,” he responded merrily. “Just open the windows above the radiator, and let the heat out.”

Short of switching off the boiler, there was apparently no other means of controlling the levels of heat in our room. So, gritting our teeth, and hoping to heaven no mischievous journalist ever heard about how a bunch of eco-enthusiasts were behaving, we duly opened the windows. And let the heat escape outside, to warm those walking by in Parliament Square.

The saddest aspect of this story is that it is one that I am wiling to bet that every single reader will be all too familiar with, in some circumstance or other. It is not a question of having access to more sophisticated, “smart”, controls. But to any control of heating at all.

And the daft thing is that simple energy management systems, and thermostatic radiator valves, have been around and familiar for thirty years or more. It never ceases to astonish me in just how few buildings these have been installed.

The UK is sadly not unique. The same observation could be made in many other parts of Europe too. But help is at hand. There is now a draft directive under discussion In Brussels, which could address precisely this issue.

The European Commission has issued a proposed “End Use Efficiency and Energy Services” directive. Article 13 of the proposed text is the pertinent one. This is entitled “Metering”. Mostly the initial draft concerns providing more informative billing. But there are moves afoot to try to introduce the concept of more efficient controls within its ambit.

The problem has been that certain weasel words keep turning up, which rather block progress. For instance, “where appropriate”. Because, whilst nobody advocates installing heating (and cooling) controls on every conceivable occasion, the contentious issue is “appropriate to whom?”

It may be in the interests of the user to have as sophisticated as possible a mechanism available. Most fuel providers would be perfectly content in many circumstances with something that just responded when a certain temperature was, or was not, reached. Equally a speculative builder can try to get away with a purely symbolic, preferably decorative, controls system – safe in the knowledge that they won’t be paying the ensuing fuel bills.

Such attitudes have certainly coloured the subsequent negotiations on the text of this proposed directive, and not just on this Article. Since publication, it has been the subject of detailed negotiations between national civil servants. Having discussed it in broad terms last December, national energy ministers are due to make a decision to proceed with the directive on June 27. It will then be up to the incoming UK Presidency to reach agreement on any remaining contentious parts of the text.

(The text also includes some other interesting proposals, like binding targets on overall – as well as public sector – energy improvements, and the introduction of an Energy Efficiency Commitment-type scheme right across Europe.)

Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s committees are also considering the proposal, with the key vote in the Industry committee due on the 20th of this month. One of the amendments under consideration has come through from our Sustainable Energy Partnership -suitably enervated by our experience in the House of Commons.

No question. If you can’t control your energy use effectively, you can only end up being profligate. Doing that in a publicly funded building like the House of Commons is doubly reprehensible. It must cease.



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