Public reality check

Despite a wealth of opportunity - and business benefits to be had - large public-sector building projects are failing in their energy efficiency, argues Merlin Hyman

There is still a large gap between policy and reality in procuring large public-sector building projects, and the energy efficiency standards they are achieving. And this is the case despite much evidence of the opportunities for energy efficiency, and its benefits to businesses.

The Environmental Industries Commission's (EIC) Climate Change Working Group represents more than 80 companies involved in providing advice and technology in the field of energy efficiency. And it has launched a lobbying campaign for government to improve the energy efficiency of large public-sector building projects such as schools and hospitals.

In the recent Energy Review, the government said: "Using every unit of energy as efficiently as possible has to be our ultimate ambition... energy efficiency is integral to our overall policy."

Despite this positive rhetoric, improvements in energy efficiency are much slower than required. Improving public procurement policy and energy efficiency is an opportunity where real action could significantly contribute to meeting UK climate change targets.

Through the Code of Sustainable Buildings, the government now has a mechanism to ensure publicly funded housing is more sustainable. In the Energy Review, the government announced that all government-funded housing would be required to meet at least Level 3 of the code. Despite this, there are still no clear standards in place.

The government committed to set mandatory energy efficiency and sustainability standards for goods and services procured by central government departments. However, the experience of many of EIC's members is that large public-sector building projects are failing to use energy-efficiency technologies.

In most cases, large public-sector building projects procure the cheapest, most polluting option - even where whole-life costs are higher than with more efficient alternatives.

The group has raised this issue with the government. And, in response, the government has recognised that delivering improvements to energy efficiency in the public sector through sustainable procurement is vital in helping the UK meet its targets on climate change. However, in a recent letter to environment minister Ian Pearson, EIC put forward proposals for clear standards on energy efficiency.

Firstly, EIC recommends that, for new publicly funded commercial and industrial buildings (including those built with PFI funding), the maximum allowable carbon emissions should be 20% lower than those for similar buildings under Approved Document L2, 2006. Positive leadership from the public sector could encourage the adoption of similar targets by commercial and industrial building projects in the private sector.

EIC also recommends that the same publicly funded commercial and industrial buildings ensure that at least 20% of their energy consumption should be provided by renewable energy - in line with the standards being proposed in London.

Thirdly, EIC recommends that any heating and ventilation equipment that requires replacement in existing publicly funded buildings should be replaced with equipment that is on the Energy Technology List (where applicable).

The Prime Minister has pledged that "all new schools and city academies should be models for sustainable development". However, the experience of EIC members and others suggests that the reality is somewhat different.

Major public building
projects such as schools and hospitals will be in operation for many years, and the government must not squander the opportunity to ensure they are built with energy efficiency at their core.

If EIC's proposals are adopted, the government can ensure its positive rhetoric on energy efficiency in publicly funded buildings is translated into positive action.

EIC will be putting these issues to environment secretary David Miliband, along with other key policy makers at its annual conference on November 8.

Merlin Hyman is director of EIC

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