A Renovation Wave is coming, and we want it to be future-proof

As the summer is now starting, let’s look ahead at a major EU initiative coming out in September: the Renovation Wave is currently being prepared by the Commission who will put forward a proposal in September. The aim is to at least double renovation rates across the EU with a view to address the significant share of CO2 emissions coming from the EU’s building stock. At the same time, this is also the opportunity to alleviate energy poverty, a salient topic for the EU, especially since the Gilets Jaunes movement, all the while future-proofing our building stock for the system change that will be implemented in the years and decades to come.

The Renovation Wave was originally announced in the Green Deal as one of the many key action points but has gained a lot more traction recently as the EU is looking to tackle the economic crisis and formulate the best suited recovery policies. With increasing calls for a Green Recovery (which was supported at an early stage by EuropeOn), this initiative has been singled out as one of the most effective policies to address the twin challenges of recovery and energy transition. Indeed, buildings account for about 36% of CO2 emission in the EU and renovations are known to be labour-intensive. Building on this premise, it is clear that investing heavily in home renovations is an ideal solution to our current situation. 

The energy efficiency first principle is a staple of EU energy policy and is likely to be at the center of this initiative. This means that insulation and building envelopes will receive plenty of attention, as they should, but this does not mean that we should overlook the other dimensions of energy renovations. 

In this context, EuropeOn formulated several suggestions for an ambitious and comprehensive Renovation Wave in Europe.

Electrical Systems are key

As climate action and reducing emissions have become central in politics across Europe as well as at EU level, we stand on the verge of a paradigm shift with regards to the way we consume and use energy. Until now, we have have been used to centralised energy systems with heavy if not utter dependence of fossil fuels, often provided by costly and sometimes unreliable imports. 

But this era is over. The homes of today are being planned with a completely different mindset. Our building are now seen as a climate and energy resource rather than a problem. With decentralisation and the switch to smart and clean energy, not only do we act at local level but we are able to drive and support a system change to the benefit of our climate and our environment. 

With increasingly fast-paced clean technology innovation, we can already equip our homes with onsite renewable power generation, which we can now self-consume, and link it to our own devices, such as electric vehicles or electric heat-pumps, leading to a certain level of self-sufficiency, or share it by feeding it into the grid or by trading with fellow clean energy users. These “smart homes” will change the way we live for the better. However, future-proofing our buildings to enable all of the above requires going further and deeper than building envelopes. 

We need strong and modern electric systems in each of our buildings. Smart homes and decentralised energy systems have electricity as a common denominator and rely on decent infrastructure to function and offer all those benefits. For instance, in Germany, 70% of buildings rely on electrical systems that are 35 years old or more. As a result switch boxes are too small and the wiring is too weak to keep up with modern and smart living (Source: ZVEH). In France, 2/3 of residential housing built over 15 years ago have electrical safety shortcomings (Source: GRESEL).

And now we can circle back to the renovation wave. Such an opportunity cannot be overlooked to achieve long-term climate and digitalisation goals. The problem with renovating electrical systems is that consumers, especially individual ones, are often reluctant to modernise their wiring and electrical components as this requires opening the walls and investing tens of thousands for something that will not be visible. Indeed, emissions reductions and electrical safety are immensely beneficial but hiding behind the walls does not make them tangible enough for most consumers to invest the necessary funds. 

In this regards, the renovation wave offers an unprecedented opportunity to address these challenges. With aims to carry out more deep renovations (which often require opening the walls, etc) this is the time to renovate electrical systems. As incentives are being formulated it is paramount that they include electrical work in their schemes.

This will enable further decarbonisation of our building stock but will also have a positive spill-over effect in other sectors. With solar generation we address emissions from the power sector, with the ability to install electric vehicle chargers we address emissions from the transport sector and the integration of variable renewable energy. With electric heat-pumps we can switch to renewable heating, a sector still heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Such a strategy will support and match perfectly with the current impetus behind sector integration, by making our buildings a hub for integrating and linking such emissions sources previously addressed independently. 

This shift will benefit the climate, energy systems and imports, and consumers who are empowered to take the reins of their energy consumptions and become prosumers.

Skills and digitalisation

There still is caveat on the way to smart homes and full prosumer mainstreaming. There is an urgent need for up- and re-skilling in electrical trades. With drastically increasing demand for clean energy technologies, stemming from both policymakers and consumers, electrical contractors face increasing demand that cannot always be met with the current workforce. As electrification advances and demand continues to grow, skills and training policies need to accompany climate and energy policies to ensure there are no workforce bottlenecks in the deployment of these zero-emission solutions. 

Skills needs have already been recognised by public authorities for the entire construction sector, a good first step in the right direction. But the professionals carrying out electrical work will face an especially high increase in demand flowing from the targeted policies seeking to eliminate fossil fuels from our energy mix. 

In addition to green and electrical skills, digitalisation is also calling for new and, obviously, digital skills. Electrical contractors are responsible for smart homes installations, where electricity is managed automatically to distribute loads in the most optimal way, to avoid peaks, take advantage of low electricity prices and make the most of onsite solar energy production. Such systems require careful programming, relying on software and coding skills, and modern electrical work, to ensure all these electrical installations can work automatically and independently while ensuring the highest level of electrical safety. The skills and training needed to carry out such work are rather recent and still in short supply, especially in SMEs, compared to the increasing demand. 

Finally, digitalisation is not limited to smart energy uses but also to work precesses. Indeed, digital skills are needed for the construction sector to adopt digital processes such as Building Information Modelling (BIM). Such processes lead to more efficiency in the construction phase but also later, allow for energy analysis and predictive maintenance, leading to more longevity of installations.