An energy revolution is on its way in the construction sector

“Do you have your own energy expert?” asks the ‘RANE – energy-related advice for housing and building’ guide to energy-efficient dwelling. I bet that few builders of detached houses or owners of housing association shares would raise their hands.

The energy solutions available when building detached houses, or for housing associations, present consumers with a labyrinth of issues. While worrying about plot location, room layout, HVAC design and many other issues, residents also need to worry about the planning of various energy solutions. In addition, they need to find the right experts at the right time who are able to present options, install equipment and provide them with the assurance they need that their chosen energy solution will continue to be cost-efficient and easy to adjust, use and maintain in the future. Control and adjustment can become very complex if hybrid solutions are chosen that combine various types of energy production such as ground heat, solar power and water-heating fireplaces.  On the other hand, digitalised and wireless systems increase the need for a new kind of ‘brand management’ of building technology.

For consumers, energy is at its best when it is ‘on tap’, keeps their toes warm and the bills aren’t a headache.   Convenience, reliability and affordability are the keywords for consumers when making energy choices related to residence and building.

Increased production of distributed solar energy and wind power –and a range of new, intelligent building technology solutions – are attracting greater media attention as each day goes by. Despite this, housing is seldom marketed on the basis of renewable energy. For example, renewable energy options barely featured at the Asta fair for consumers held in Tampere in February; heat pumps were pretty well all that was on offer for small-scale builders – which is what they are most likely to choose. This is a familiar, tried and tested technology with a reasonable payback period that is an easy fit with home packages and basic HVAC solutions. And it is clearly available. So, is the development of residential energy solutions being dictated by supply? Shouldn’t it be consumer preferences that decide how the energy markets transform and ‘green up’?

For alternative energy solutions to become easy and automatic for builders in the same way as heat pumps – and for renewable energy to play a greater role in house purchasing decisions – experts in house building, building technology and HVAC design and implementation will have to be brought into the mix. This will put the spotlight on building companies, chief designers, HVAC designers, construction consultants advising home builders, and home package companies.   In addition, municipalities could play a greater role via planning and the terms and conditions of conveyancing.

The transition in residential energy towards renewable, distributed and energy-efficient solutions is a prime example of systemic change. Consumers and equipment manufacturers cannot kick off such transitions on their own. Many new energy solutions are already sufficiently mature, in technical terms, to conquer the markets. However, embedded practices, routines and overspecialisation present barriers to their wider use.

This is a question of a broader socio-technical change, in which technical and social factors intertwine. At best, the result is new types of consumers, equipment suppliers, business models and regulatory and contractual arrangements. Innovative business models – such as those based on the rental of solar panels and budding enthusiasm to engage in the self-production of energy within a distributed network, also among housing companies – suggest that a residential energy revolution of some kind is at hand. In addition, demand for energy services is increasing. Time will tell whether standard solutions arise from these new practices.

Maria Åkerman, Principal Scientist 

Nina Wessberg, Senior Scientist

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