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Not quite nearly zero-energy buildings: Why the EU-27 must strengthen and rigorously implement nZEB standards

Oliver Rapf
Oliver Rapf
03 September 2021
Green Homes, Energy Efficiency

Since the beginning of 2021, all new buildings constructed in the EU must be nearly zero-energy buildings (nZEBs), according to Article 9 of the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD). However, there remains a wide degree of disparity in how nZEB standards are defined and implemented across the EU-27, often leading to a misalignment with EU climate targets. The revision of the EPBD is an opportunity to correct this.

Strengthened national nZEB standards and rigorous implementation are a key ingredient to achieving Europe’s wider climate goals for 2030 and 2050, as well as increased comfort and well-being for occupants and long-term security for investors.

However, as things stand, there is considerable disparity in definitions and metrics used to determine national nZEBs. In BPIE’s recent analysis of nZEB standards in the EU-27, we have identified a wide variation in Member States’ calculation methodologies, required levels of energy performance to achieve nZEB status, and the extent to which residual energy requirements need to be covered by renewable energy. Adding to this misalignment, seven Member States have nZEB standards for single family homes which are less demanding than the Commission’s recommended benchmark[1] to limit energy waste, while only three Member States are exceeding the EU recommendations, as shown in figure 1 below.

And that’s not all. National requirements for renewable energy in new buildings are even more diverse, often leaving room for use of considerable amounts of fossil fuels in new buildings. Current nZEB standards were actually calculated a number of years before they became law for all buildings at the start of 2021. This means that they are not based on the latest cost data, which should today reflect significant reductions in costs of renewable energy.

Single family house, zero-energy buildings, nZEB

Source: BPIE Policy Briefing (June 2021): Nearly Zero: a Review of EU Member State Implementation of New Build Requirements.

Why this matters now

Given the potential for new buildings to contribute to the EU’s wider objective of a highly energy efficient and decarbonised building stock by 2050, there is a real urgency for these standards to be thoroughly and ambitiously implemented at the national level, and for the Commission to ensure strengthened standards in legislative revisions, set for later this year.

Considering the lifecycle of buildings, new construction should not need to go through a major renovation between now and 2050. While buildings constructed between 2021 and 2050 will not constitute most of the overall building stock by mid-century, the standards for new build also set the tone for decarbonising the existing stock as they can and should become a benchmark for renovation as well. This is particularly relevant as the EPBD revision considers the introduction of a definition or standard for “deep renovation”.

We must also keep in mind that the nZEB standard is used as a reference point in the Taxonomy (a classification system establishing a list of environmentally sustainable economic activities) technical screening criteria for new buildings. For all these reasons, it is crucial that the national nZEB definitions are done thoroughly and ambitiously.

The ball is in the Commission’s and Member States’ court

The re-opening of the EPBD legislative file provides an important opportunity for the European Commission to ensure that the methodology used to set nZEB requirements is updated and strengthened across Member States. The so-called cost-optimal methodology is the foundation on which national nZEB definitions are based. It is a decade old and has many shortcomings, such as leaving non-energy benefits aside when setting national standards. New building standards should also reflect Europe’s objective of being climate-neutral by 2050. This would mean that all new buildings constructed as of 2030 the latest should be positive energy buildings and net-zero carbon over their lifecycle.

Furthermore, numeric indicators should be included in (or linked to) the nZEB definition in the revised directive for maximum primary energy use. The revised directive should also include requirements for all new buildings to be supplied by renewable energy sources only, rather than the current “to a very significant extent”, which has been interpreted very differently by Member States. Allowing fossil fuel-based systems to be installed in new buildings will create a damaging lock-in effect, which can and should be avoided.

Lastly, to ensure that the above-mentioned policies are effective, the Commission needs to make sure that Member States comply with requirements to monitor and report on nZEB implementation progress (due every four years under the governance regulation Article 35), and it should monitor and enforce the implementation of the “energy efficiency first” principle in Member States.

The revision of the EPBD this year is an important opportunity to ensure that Europe goes beyond the nearly-zero concept towards positive energy buildings by 2030, where new builds produce more energy than they consume.

[1] In 2016 the European Commission published a set of nZEB recommendations differentiated according to four main climatic zones across the EU. For single family homes the benchmark for primary energy including that supplied from renewable sources is in the range of 50-90 kWh/m2/a: