Everyone has to make the energy transition leap

News - 30 August 2018 - Communication BK

Making all housing corporation properties energy-neutral is an operation of mythic proportions. Does the solution lie in technical innovations, or does the construction sector's entire approach require change? Both, argues PhD candidate Eefje Stutvoet; otherwise, we will never meet our objectives. 

The housing corporation sector has made serious sustainable energy agreements: on average, the housing stock must have a B energy label by 2021, and all social homes must be energy-neutral by 2050. But how do you do that? The vast majority of the 2.4 million homes involved are draught-ridden and have a low book value. Financially, the major restoration work needed in every home seems unachievable. "And even if the money is available, it doesn't solve the problem", says Stutvoet. "Without an industrial approach and the cooperation of the residents, you'll never meet the target dates. 

For her doctoral thesis 'Energy transition: embrace the complexity', she studied two schemes that have been devised in recent years in the context of the Energiesprong ('Energy Leap') initiative. Both the ‘Slim & Snel' ('Smart & Fast)' and the ‘De Stroomversnelling’ ('Electricity acceleration') schemes focus on energy-efficient renovation concepts for the post-war serially produced housing stock. It mainly involves scaling up. There are hundreds of thousands of terraced houses and maisonettes that are virtually identical in design in the Netherlands. By developing an efficient and inexpensive renovation concept for each type, you can theoretically gain tremendous speed. For example, the 'Stroomversnelling' scheme could start with 1,000 houses and then scale up to 11,000 and then - in 2020 - to 111,000.

A great objective, but it will not work. Why? Mostly because the various parties involved find it difficult to shed the role that they have traditionally occupied, Stutvoet argues. Builders are used to working according to a plan, housing corporations only look at their own housing portfolio and suppliers are accustomed to only supplying their own parts. Much more integration is needed to make truly significant changes, according to her data analysis. 

Energy performance fee

Theoretically, money is not the issue in the massive operation because the existing energy bill can be used as a source of financing. If residents are currently paying €150 a month to the energy company, you can use that amount as an energy performance fee; after all, the resident gets an improved, energy-neutral home in return. Spread over 40 years, this comes to an investment amount of roughly €60,000 per home. An amount that initially would appear to go a long way for contractors. 
Yet the costs still seem to be a problem. Realising truly competitive prices requires the use of innovative contract forms, says Stutvoet. A number of large construction companies, such as BAM and Ballast Nedam, are successfully rising to the challenge. They have conducted various pilot projects and developed prototypes. But achieving serious scaling up has not worked so far. "In order to do that, housing corporations must work together", Stutvoet explains. "If they group together similar types of houses, you could put 10,000 homes on the market at the same time. That would get the counter ticking." 
This requires a leap on the part of the suppliers, too, she has established. They have the expertise on heat pumps, solar boilers, PV panels, triple glazing and smart cladding. "But they have to offer them as a single integrated product; otherwise, those high numbers of houses are impossible. Another additional huge cost reduction is possible there." 

Another important lesson from both ‘Slim & Snel’ and ‘De Stroomversnelling’ schemes is that cooperation from residents is crucial. Without a 70% approval, a renovation project will not take place. Pilot projects worked when residents were persuaded with successful examples; pilots that lost residents halfway fell apart. Sometimes that also had to do with the government. It had to rush to get regulations in order - another necessary condition. 
Although both schemes failed to meet their ambitious objectives, Stutvoet argues for expanding the 'protective environment' that such projects offer. "Because the assignment is extremely challenging. We must seize every means in order to succeed. Embrace the complexity."