Are European buildings ready to smart?

The latest recast of the European Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) wishes to accelerate the deployment of smart technologies in the building sector. These solutions are designated as one of the significant ways to optimize energy efficiency of large buildings in the EU. But to what extent should the EU rely on this aspect?

Smart is the new way?

In 2021, the European Union started to re-evaluate its environmental targets, starting with the package “Fit For 55”, which plans on reducing by 55% its greenhouse gas emissions (GES) compared to 1990 levels. This intention has then been sped up by the geopolitical context. Indeed, the energy crisis pushed Member-States to reduce their consumption and to aim at a more efficient and independent energetic model.

In this general atmosphere the European Commission asked for a recast of the main legislation regarding buildings’ energy performance: the EPBD. This directive had to be updated, and aligned with these new ambitions, since the building sector accounts for 40% of final energy consumption and 36% of GES emissions of the continent.

Yet the 2022 energy crisis has thrown many of the Member States into complex economic situations and led to significant inflation in energy prices. Some of the ambitions of this early recast have been tempered. One feared such high ambition could have paralyzed the market at a time of housing crisis for many of the EU countries. But the dynamic when it comes to promoting smart technologies tends to go the other way.

The BACS example

Smart building is a large concept. It gathers all the computer operation actions and adjustments that can improve energy efficiency or performance, and more globally the management and users’ experience of the building. Among the main elements behind this concept are the building automation and control systems, better known under the BACS acronym.

The 2018 version of the EPBD expected Member States to lay down requirements to ensure that, by 31 December 2024, non-residential buildings with an effective rated output for heating systems, air-conditioning systems, systems for combined space heating and ventilation of over 290 kW, would be equipped with BACS.

The 2024 recast added non-residential buildings with an effective rated output for heating systems, air-conditioning systems, systems for combined space heating and ventilation (or systems for combined air conditioning and ventilation) of over 70 kW, which will have to comply by 2030.

This development is not a simple confirmation of BACS enhancement in European buildings: from a specific tool for large buildings, BACS shifted to a common tool that should be applied to a significantly larger proportion of the building stock.

The smart-readiness indicator

Already mentioned in the 2018 version of the EPBD, the smart-readiness indicator (SRI) has been in development since then. The SRI is supposed to “measure the capacity of buildings to use information and communication technologies and electronic systems to adapt the operation of buildings to the needs of the occupants and the grid and to improve the energy efficiency and overall performance of buildings”.

The 2018 plan was counting on the development of an optional indicator at EU scale. The European Commission first worked on definitions and calculation methodology, before launching a test phase in 8 countries, among which France, Spain, and Denmark.

The latest version of the EPBD redefines the roadbook regarding the SRI. The Commission is indeed expected to produce on the testing and implementation of the smart readiness indicator on the basis of the available results of the national test phases by June 2026. Following this report the Commission shall, if the results lead this way, adopt a delegated act requiring the application of the common Union scheme for rating the smart readiness of buildings.

This new tool would become compulsory, translating the EU intention of making smart solutions universal.

The limits of smart solutions

Although the 2024 edition of the EPBD comes as a confirmation in this regard, this trend is not news. The EU smart ecosystem has been growing during the last decade, and the EU Commission can now highlight the diversity of financing programmes and EU-funded projects supporting this evolution. This effort towards energy efficiency in the building sector is a welcome trend from the Commission and Europe as a whole.

However, the coincidence of this increase in ambition for smart solutions and the decline in targets for lowering energy consumption may suggest a worrying trajectory: smart buildings cannot be expected to act as a unique and universal solution. Not only because we must allow for all kinds of solutions regarding energy efficiency. But also, because energy efficiency alone will not suffice; it must go hand in hand with a reduction in the energy needs of our buildings, and the promotion of more sober behavior, practices, and real estate.

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