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Ecobuild: Why we'll be talking refurbishment and feed-in at ExCeL

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As Ecobuild rolls around, hot topics are domestic refurbishment and the feed-in-tariff says Bill Gething

New Year is fading to a distant chilly memory, the Archers have started lambing and the daffodils are nearly out. It must be time for Ecobuild.

When it emerged in 2005 as a relatively modest, minority-interest affair, even the most enthusiastic visitor would never have predicted that it would grow into the huge event it has become. The 2011 programme promises 115 speakers in the lecture series and three simultaneous streams of conferences, plus 130 further seminars organised across a dozen or so themes, not to mention continuous demonstrations and, of course, 1,300 exhibitors hoping to fill their order books.

It will be interesting to see if, like last year, it bucks the recessionary trend and is as busy as the years before the bubble burst, despite its new location in the Far East (ExCeL, in London’s Canning Town).

The downside of all this intensity is that getting the most out of the event requires military-level preparation (which will inevitably be derailed as you bump into friends and colleagues between events) and, just as inevitably, you will miss more than you see which might be frustrating.

It is good to see an increasing number of seminars, products and demonstrations putting a spotlight on refurbishment. The domestic sector alone is a huge market: we need to radically refurbish about one home per minute between now and 2050 (that’s if we start immediately and work 24/7 – so more like seven per minute if we stick to normal working hours…). Through a combination of an holistic design approach and fundamental technical knowledge, architects have an opportunity to add real value to this process but, with a few notable exceptions, have seemed disinclined to get involved so far.

Interesting lessons are emerging from the Technology Strategy Board’s Retrofit for the Future programme, which has funded about 100 projects that have explored different approaches to reducing the carbon emissions of a range of homes by around 80 per cent. The programme has flagged up the extraordinary costs of achieving this level of improvement (albeit there will be economies of scale once the market becomes established), a number of knotty technical issues around enhancing insulation levels that we are only just starting to understand, and the almost unlimited potential for a whole range of innovative products and techniques.

It is a bit premature to hear this year whether anticipated energy savings have been delivered in practice but it is important that the learning from this major investment is digested and disseminated as widely and as thoroughly as possible. This should be a hot topic for Ecobuild 2012: at last we should have a decent set of comparable data from which real lessons can be learnt about what does and doesn’t work in practice.

The feed-in-tariff sponsored boom in micro-renewable generation sales is evidenced by the 300 or so exhibitors of photovoltaic products. The government’s recent announcement of a review of the tariff as it applies to larger PV installations sparked some indignant noises from the industry but, while I agree absolutely that a major push for renewable generation is essential, I have to admit to a degree of sympathy with the government’s predicament.

From the point of view of national energy policy, the priority should be to increase overall renewable generation at the least cost. Is it sensible to over-sponsor generation at the small scale when larger-scale installations offer better value for money? The enthusiasm with which larger-scale PV installations are being put forward is evidence of this – there is simply no need to be so generous. Bear in mind that the feed-in tariff is being paid for by a levy on all our electricity bills, even, or perhaps particularly, those in fuel poverty.

That said, philosophically, there is a world of difference between a remote, unseen solar farm just topping up the grid and someone’s personal rooftop array with their own meter that they can watch going backwards when the sun shines. People behave differently when they become generators. They make direct comparisons between their consumption and their production and tend to husband their resource to make best use of it. This kind of behaviour change could have a large impact on how effective we will be in matching our future demand to our (renewable) supply. Technology alone cannot bridge the gap between our current energy- consuming habits and the low energy, low-carbon future we promise ourselves.

Bill Gething is the founder of consultancy, Sustainability + Architecture. For this column and daily updates on sustainability, visit ajfootprint.com

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