Is Europe ready for Sustainable Plus Energy Buildings and Neighbourhoods?

On September 28th, experts met online to discuss the status of Plus Energy Buildings and Neighbourhoods in the EU and identify the barriers and opportunities for their full implementation across the European Union.

The workshop brought together experts from national housing organisations (Austrian Federation of Limited Profit Housing Associations – GBV, and the Dutch Federation of Housing Associations – AEDES), European think tank (Buildings Performance Institute Europe), research institute (Joanneum Research) as well as the JPI Urban Europe.

Sustainable Plus Energy Buildings and Neighbourhoods (PEBs and SPENs) can play a crucial role in achieving climate and energy targets as large-scale projects improving community facilities, health, wellbeing, safety, public spaces and affordable housing. The SPEN concept offers an opportunity to create low carbon living spaces that would integrate on-site renewable energy sources, local storage facilities and energy sharing hubs to exploit 100% GHG emission savings. However, several barriers are holding back their development across Europe, specifically when it comes to regulatory frameworks at all levels of governance.

What is the status of SPENS in the EU?

Christoph Gollner (JPI Urban Europe) presented the PED Programme,a transnational, intergovernmental R&I programme and joint initiative between SET Plan Action 3.2 and JPI Urban Europe. Its mission is to reach 100 Positive Energy Districts in Europe by 2025 and make PEDs part of urban strategies towards climate neutral cities. Together with other transnational programmes, JPI Urban Europe is working on a joint PED Framework definition that encompasses all levels of governance.

Continuing at the European level, Zsolt Toth (BPIE) presented the H2020 project Syn.ikia and the findings from the report Policy mapping and analysis of Plus Energy Buildings and Neighbourhoods. Looking at current policies at European and national level, there is a trend to move towards an integrated and sustainable built environment supporting SPENs. However, while SPENs are a key tool to achieve EU climate goals, their regulatory framework is still a work in progress, and alignment between policies and objectives remains an issue. There is also a lack of common definitions, crucial to meet policy requirements. Aspects such as indoor environment and social inclusion are currently not mandatory, and would need to be sharpened to create a level-playing field for SPENs across the EU.

Andreas Turk (Joanneum Research) introduced the community aspect of PEDs and SPENs, through the case of the EXCESS project, aiming to demonstrate advanced interaction with the grid as well as with consumers in 4 European demos. The Clean Energy Package has the potential to strongly support the implementation of PEDs and PEBs, in particular with the integration of the Renewable Energy Communities (REC) and Citizen Energy Communities (CEC) concepts. These 2 concepts introduce key features that are of high relevance, such as the development of a framework for citizen participation and governance, the integration of non-professional actors in the energy markets, energy sharing via the public grid, ownership and operation of local grids and, specific to CECs, the provision of a range of services to markets, and the provision of local/small scale flexibilities to markets.

National perspectives

In Austria, Gerlinde Gutheil (Austrian Federation of Limited Profit Housing Associations) demonstrated that there is a broad regulatory framework addressing specific dimensions of PED, in terms of energy efficiency, neighbourhood approach and production of renewable energy. However, there is no explicit legislative framework for an integrated approach like PED. In Austria, PED pilot projects with an explicit plus energy ambition are still at an early stage. Launched by housing associations, the initiative „Heat transition Plus“ aim at decarbonising the social housing sector by 2040. Integrated key approaches such as on-site production/consumption of renewable energy (PV), RECs, and demand-side management, the initiative is also on the way to becoming active partners for SPENs at local level.

In the Netherlands, the Dutch Climate Agreement (2018) puts forward a district approach, with municipalities being in the driving seat for drafting transition visions for heating at local level. With the aim of reaching 1,5 million natural-gas free dwellings by 2030, the Climate Agreement also covers all sectors and brings together a broad coalition of stakeholders (construction companies, energy providers, housing associations, trade unions, NGOs, governments). Robin van Leijen (AEDES) mentioned the Starting Engine project, which puts the social housing sector at the front seat of this transition. The goal is to have 100.000 natural-gas free homes by 2022, of which 20% will be connected to district heating. To overcome current regulatory gaps, AEDES reached an agreement with district heating companies that covers the pre-conditions for the transition: a cost neutral user rate for tenants, a transparent business case, and connection to district heating.

The active role of municipalities is crucial when implementing a district approach. This is not just a climate transition, it is also a social transition. Getting tenants on board is crucial, yet they can be reluctant to engage in a new heating system, even without additional costs. To make this transition happen, national governments need to provide clarity and guidance to municipalities to meet their climate objectives.

What are the lessons learned?

The main barriers are not technological, they are about existing regulations (in terms of demand-side flexibility, energy sharing, access to the electricity markets). SPENs, being such a cross-cutting issue, are pinpointing the inconsistencies of the current legislative framework. How can the different directives be transposed at the national level in a synergetic way? The objectives are there but concrete plans and guidance for Member States are still missing. Now the challenge is to upscale PEB and PED from pilots to mainstream planning. We are on the right path, but it is time to use the learnings from the pilots and find solutions for integrating the different levels (local, regional, national and EU). Beyond the question of energy, it is about how we want to plan the cities and how we want to involve citizens.

The H2020 project syn.ikia recently published its report on Policy mapping and analysis of Plus Energy Buildings and Neighbourhoods, available here:

Watch the recording of the workshop below:

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