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Passivhaus buildings could transform UK energy demand

This is a guest post by Green Alliance member Dr Bruce Tofield of the Build with Care Project based at UEA. He gives his perspective on the green economy discussion at Green Alliance’s annual debate, which took place last week at the German Embassy.


“Make a bottleneck and, guided by regulation, the market economy will find a solution”

This was the stimulating advice by Professor Dr Klaus Töpfer, former German environment minister in his introductory comments at Green Alliance’s annual debate on 1 March, at which Edward Davey MP, UK Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, also spoke.

In just a few minutes Professor Töpfer outlined how long term thinking has enabled Germany to become Europe’s leader in waste management and in renewable energy infrastructure.  He then mentioned how another bottleneck – the need for energy storage capacity to complement renewable electricity – can be being tackled via renewable methane.

Tackling the bottleneck
But tackling the biggest global bottleneck of all: the growing global demand for fossil fuels, cannot be done just with renewable energy and renewable methane.  Time is too short.  In just five years, according to the International Energy Agency, the planet will have gone past the point of no return to avoid potentially dangerous climate change[1].  We have to reduce demand as well as transform supply and reduce it fast.  As the IEA also said in its World Energy Outlook last November: “The most important contribution to reaching energy security and climate goals comes from the energy that we do not consume.”

In questions, Edward Davey was asked why UK electricity demand is predicted to grow two-fold or more by 2050 while Germany’s Energiekonzept[2] aims to reduce electricity demand by 25 per cent by 2050.  The answer lies in ambitions for buildings and for real progress in energy efficiency.  Germany, according to the Energiekonzept, plans a renovation roadmap targeting an 80 per cent reduction in primary energy demand by buildings by 2050.  The UK has no such target.  Decarbonisation of energy inefficient buildings must happen in the UK, it seems, by installation of heat pumps and similar equipment powered by renewable electricity.  Such an expensive, unnecessary and, almost certainly, unachievable option for the UK is the market avoiding a solution because there is no regulation to guide it.

The Passivhaus solution
Fortunately, there is a solution and it also comes from Germany.  Passivhaus[3] is a quality standard for both new buildings and for refurbishment, developed twenty years ago, that reduces energy use for heating and cooling to the lowest possible figure.  Building new or retrofitting to Passivhaus standard transforms the current situation in most countries where there is ignorance about actual building performance[4] and often much poorer performance in actual use than architects might claim.  In a Passivhaus building:

  • energy use for heating is minimised,
  • performance is as designed,
  • the internal environment is healthy and promotes well-being, and
  • construction is undertaken to high quality standards.

Urgent and accelerated action to reduce energy demand, led by the transformation of buildings, can help us pass through the bottleneck to avoid tipping too far towards dangerous climate change.  As recent projects show[5], with a quality approach, new build to Passivhaus standard need cost no more than working to conventional regulations.  But the strengthening of regulation to drive the change we need is not happening at present because of inertia, ignorance and resistance to change.  Current policies, both at EU and national level, seem to assume we have plenty of time to decide to get serious.

Constructive easing
We estimate[6] that the cost of refurbishing the great majority of the UK’s homes to cut energy use by up to 80 per cent, as Germany plans to do, might cost between £200 billion and £400 billion over forty years or so.  This figure is similar to the sum, £325 billion, released into the UK economy in just three years by the Bank of England’s ‘quantitative easing’.  We’re facing a global climate crisis that cannot be solved by quantitative easing.  But is Britain’s financial services industry up to the task of helping solve climate change and working with the construction industry to deliver a low carbon built infrastructure that eliminates fuel poverty too.

[1]     Four-fifths of the total energy-related CO2 emissions permissible by 2035 in the 450 Scenario are already “locked-in” by our existing capital stock (power plants, buildings, factories, etc.). If stringent new action is not forthcoming by 2017, the energy-related infrastructure then in place will generate all the CO2 emissions allowed in the 450 Scenario up to 2035″, International Energy Agency World Energy Outlook 2011, 9 November 2011 (; reference 45 in Refurbishing Europe.

[2]     Energy Concept for an Environmentally Sound, Reliable and Affordable Energy Supply; 28 September 2010;:; reference 141 in Refurbishing Europe.

[4]     Be Professional: Get real about building performance, Bill Bordass, Useable Buildings Trust, Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE) annual conference, May 2011, accessible at; reference 259 in Refurbishing Europe.

[5]     See, for example, Wolverhampton Schools, Jonathan Hines, Nick Grant and Matt Wisdom, UK Passivhaus Conference, 24 October 2011,

[6]     Refurbishing Europe: An EU Strategy for Energy Efficiency and Climate Action led by Building Refurbishment, Bruce Tofield and Martin Ingham, University of East Anglia Low Carbon Innovation Centre and Build with CaRe, February 2012,

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Green Alliance is a charity and independent think tank focused on ambitious leadership and increased political support for environmental solutions in the UK. This blog provides space for commentary and analysis around environmental politics and policy issues as they affect the UK. The views of external contributors do not necessarily represent those of Green Alliance.

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