Author: Armin Mayer, ep group
During its fifth General Assembly in London in November, the EN-TRACK consortium organised a hybrid roundtable with experts and stakeholders in the buildings sector to discuss the role of data in the net zero energy and carbon value chain. The session was an opportunity to exchange ideas and best practices across a set of recurring themes that present both challenges and opportunities for investors, building owners and operators, and others who are navigating a path towards net zero emissions.
EN-TRACK consortium members were joined by investors, policy makers, technical experts, thought leaders and others from a select set of organisations including: Amber Infrastructure, the UK Association for Decentralised Energy (ADE), the UK Department for Business and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), Delta-EE, Eco-Wise, Elmhurst Energy, Incendium Consulting, and Repowering UK.
More standardised and usable data is needed
Steven Fawkes, Managing Partner at ep group, a UK based clean energy consultancy and member of the consortium, opened the session by highlighting the clear need for better and more data to inform the net zero transition. The discussion was moderated by Chris Jofeh, who chairs the Welsh Government’s independent advisory group on residential decarbonisation.
Stoyan Danov, Staff Scientist at CIMNE and EN-TRACK project lead, then presented the platform’s key functionalities and value proposition as tool for benchmarking and comparing the energy and financial performance of building portfolios and efficiency interventions.
The participants were invited to share their views on wider sector challenges, as well as on the ways in which EN-TRACK could add value. One issue that emerged early in the discussion centred around the challenge of a lack of consistent, historical data on building energy efficiency investments. Steven Fawkes, for example, noted data on energy efficiency investments and building performance is highly limited and lacks standardisation. This is true notably in comparison to data on mortgage loans, for example, where extensive information covering the last 200 years is available for investors and others to analyse.
Energy performance certificates – the elephant in the room
Several participants flagged that energy performance certificates (EPCs) should, in principle, serve as a basis for tracking and comparing building energy performance, and in some cases, they do offer an important starting point. However, there was also an acknowledgement that EPCs have been implemented differently across and within countries, leading to variances in quality and availability. In the UK, EPC data is “really hard to work with” according to some participants, who pointed to several factors including data being dispersed in numerous locations and handled in an inconsistent manner.
This challenge was echoed by Stoyan Danov, who indicated that in many cases less than 10% of available data on energy efficiency projects and building energy performance is useful for analytics. Indeed, one of the objectives of EN-TRACK is to increase this percentage by providing a coherent and consistent set of indicators and parameters to deploy when collecting relevant buildings data.
There was also a shared sense among participants that even if EPC quality and availability improve, there are important limits to the role EPCs can play in supporting the wider net zero transition. This is because EPCs are essentially forward-looking estimates of energy and carbon performance, rather than real time indicators. Smart meters and other digital technologies can, in contrast, enable not only real time data collection; they can also enable buildings to ‘participate’ in the energy systems through demand response mechanisms, whereby energy using equipment in buildings is automatically powered down during peak times to reduce grid pressures, for example.
Government support is crucial
Given the right conditions and access to quality data, EN-TRACK could offer a unique tool in a niche marketplace of databases and platforms on energy efficiency, especially for public sector audiences and stakeholders who could both share data on their municipal buildings, for example, to enrich and benefit from the platform. Despite the potential of EN-TRACK and related technologies, many countries and/or sectors are still some distance from achieving their widescale deployment and usage in buildings. This is due to several factors including costs and privacy concerns (notably related to domestic smart meter data), as well as lack of interoperability between technologies, which can be compounded by definitional issues, such as differences in the way floor area is measured across buildings, for example.
While technical means exist to address these types of issues – indeed, EN-TRACK incorporates standard definitions and indicators to help mitigate data discrepancies – the challenge of improving access to reliable and real-time building performance data is an important one for policy makers and wider society. Participants agreed that such data should be much more of a public resource than it is now. Long-term support and guidance should be provided by governments to not only ensure consistency across data and reporting, but also to ensure platforms and tools such as EN-TRACK receive public funding support (if necessary) to secure their longevity. This is particularly the case since, due to market barriers or failures, these types of data-based tools may take considerable time to scale and become commercially viable.
Despite a potentially long lead-time to market maturity, participants agreed that a platform like EN-TRACK can provide significant value to property owners, for example, who need a reliable means to benchmark and track the performance of their building portfolio against stated net zero targets. Through its flexibility and adjustability in terms of functionality, including the ability of the platform to interact with other databases such as the De-Risk Energy Efficiency Platform (DEEP), EN-TRACK could also support organisations with automated reporting against any number of key performance indicators (KPIs). In the right conditions, this is a tool that can be scaled to help unlock the data puzzle for many organisations aiming for net zero emissions in the next decades.