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Europe’s energy security must start with energy efficiency

By Knauf Insulation
May 05, 2022

Europe’s built environment – its homes, offices, schools, hospitals, libraries, and other buildings – is the single largest consumer of energy.

It is also one of the largest emitters of carbon dioxide. In fact, collectively, this building stock is responsible for 40% of the EU’s total energy consumption and 36% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Quentin Galland-Jarrett, Knauf Insulation’s Group Public and Regulatory Affairs Director

Improving the energy efficiency of buildings is central to achieving the European Green Deal’s ambitious goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. It is also key to addressing the urgent need of reducing the EU’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Energy efficiency should be at the centre of any effort to reduce both carbon emissions and fossil fuel dependency, yet in the European Commission’s proposed REPowerEU initiative it seems to take a back seat.  

“We can’t seriously address the issue of energy security without first addressing energy efficiency,” says Quentin Galland, Public Affairs Director at Knauf Insulation. “The proposed action overlooks the critical role that energy efficiency must play if we are ever going to decrease – if not eliminate – Europe’s dependence on Russian gas.”


Energy security beyond short term fixes

Instead of elevating long-term solutions like an energy efficient building stock, the REPowerEU proposal favours short-term fixes that fail to decrease a building’s overall energy consumption – a prerequisite to decarbonisation.

Take for example the proposal to roll out 30 million heat pumps by 2030. According to the Commission, this would save the EU 35 billion cubic metres (bcm) in gas consumption per year – a prediction that, at least on paper, is true.

Heat pumps use electricity to concentrate heat potential and are comparatively more energy efficient than gas boilers. It stands to reason therefore that replacing gas boilers with electric heat pumps would reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas and, in doing so, reduce the building stock’s total greenhouse gas emissions.

Seems like a win-win, right?

Not quite.

“The problem is that heat pumps alone won’t solve Europe’s fossil fuel and carbon problems,” says Steven Heath, an energy expert at Knauf Insulation.


A fragile magic trick

The attractiveness of heat pumps is their ability to perform what Steven describes as a ‘magic trick’. “You put 1 kW of electricity into the hat and pull four units of heat out,” he says. “That’s essentially a 400% efficiency rating over gas boilers’ 90% figure.”

However, to be a viable alternative to gas boilers, heat pumps must be able to heat a home or building at a comparable cost. That means achieving the ‘magic’ ratio of around 4 units of heat for every 1 kW of electricity. But this often isn’t the case – a fact made all-too-clear in the United Kingdom, which underwent a recent rollout of heat pumps.

According to the recent analysis, the median efficiency ratio for heat pumps in the UK is closer to 2.7 units of heat for every 1 kW of electricity put in, well off the ideal 1 to 4 ratio. Furthermore, out of 66 surveyed homes, only six heat pumps delivered the promised 1 to 4 ratio.

“Many heat pump users in the study are likely paying double the cost of a gas boiler after having already paid twice the amount to install the pump in the first place,” says Steven.

Heat pumps also have a capacity challenge. “In the vast majority of UK homes, the heat kicks on at around 5:00 or 6:00 a.m.,” explains Steven.

While this isn’t a problem when everyone’s using a gas boiler, it does become an issue with heat pumps. “If all the heat pumps tick on at the same time, the grid will fail as there simply is not enough renewable energy to meet demand,” adds Steven.

This challenge of providing enough electricity for heat pumps in a decarbonised grid is even more acute when looking at seasonal impacts and in particular winter peak electricity demand. An analysis by Knauf Energy Solutions into the winter peak challenge for Germany concluded that whilst overall electricity demand for electric heating would increase by 356 Terawatt-hour (TWh)/year, the additional generation capacity needed to deliver this demand, due to winter peaks and generation troughs, would be 2,129 TWh/year, almost five times more.

“As we decarbonise both heating and electricity generation, energy efficiency in homes is no longer just about energy savings for residents, it’s about reducing the overall energy system costs for peak generation capacity”, explained Barry Lynham, Managing Director of Knauf Energy Solutions. “This means that homes should be seen as virtual power plants, where, using digital energy efficiency meters, governments should invest in lowering grid capacity requirements through proven energy efficiency savings in homes.”


It starts with insulation

All of this illustrates the fragility of heat pumps’ solution when approached in isolation. “In a sense, REPowerEU, as proposed, wants to cross the finish line without first running the race,” notes Quentin Galland.

Instead of going straight to installing heat pumps, Europe needs to ensure that its building stock is heat pump ready – and that starts with proper insulation. That’s because getting a heat pump to deliver the magic 400% efficiency rating is tied to two things – outside temperature and the flow temperature of the heating or radiator circuit.

“You can’t control the former, but a well-insulated home will slow heat loss to the outside, allowing a flow temperature in the radiators to go as low as 35º and still deliver a warm comfortable home,” says Steven Heath. “Poor insulation, on the other hand, means higher flow temperatures are needed to deliver that same indoor comfort, which causes the efficiency rating to collapse and the occupant to get very high bills.”

Out of the nearly 250 million houses in Europe, less than 10% were built in the last 10 years and are not in accordance with the latest insulation standards. Furthermore, of the 85 – 90% of the current building stock that will still be standing in 2050, at least 75% is energy inefficient and, without significant renovation, not properly configured for a heat pump.

“This means that the vast majority of homes are not energy efficient and thus not heat pump ready,” says Quentin Galland.

So, how do you get a home heat pump ready? “In an ideal world, measure the in-use home fabric heat loss,” notes Steven Heath. “If measured to be inefficient, install a cost-appropriate whole-house insulation specification to improve home efficiency while also sizing the heat pump and radiators to meet that now reduced space heating need.”

“Sizing should consider peak heat demand in really cold weather, as well as average demand estimates.”


Ensuring a long-term win for a historic policy initiative 

With this in mind, REPowerEU should start by focusing on the 34 million Europeans who live in poorly insulated houses. “We know that rolling out heat pumps is a quick fix, but if the buildings are not first properly insulated, it’s not a long-term win for anybody,” adds Quentin Galland.

“To ensure a long-term win, we recommend putting energy efficiency at the core of Europe’s plans to achieve energy independence. All member states should support programmes to insulate the roofs, attics and cavity walls of all European homes by next winter.”

According to the Building Performance Institute Europe (BPIE), insulating homes’ attics and roofs could save up to 14% of residential heating energy by 2030. It also has the benefit of being a technically simple measure that can be quickly scaled up. Furthermore, this would result in annual energy savings equal to 26 bcm of fossil gas saved, or about 16.77% of the EU’s 2021 imports from Russia. 

“Without insulation, you can’t have energy-efficient buildings, and without energy-efficient buildings, heat pumps won’t deliver low-cost low carbon heat,” concludes Steven Heath. “There’s no way around it, if we don’t take an ecosystem approach, we will fail – both as to reducing our dependency on fossil fuels and achieving our climate goals.”