Revolutionising Building Efficiency: Mapping Heat Variations to Accelerate Retrofitting

News that a UK space satellite can map the heat of objects on Earth, some as small as 3.5m across, has directly highlighted the need for greater energy efficiency in our existing building stock, says Kas Mohammed, Vice President, Digital Energy at Schneider Electric UK&I.


Dubbed ‘the world’s thermometer’, images captured by HotSat-1 show bulging areas of orange, representing heat leaking from buildings across cities like Leeds, Las Vegas and Darwin.

On first look, the pictures are alarming. The level of heat loss, particularly amidst the dual climate and energy crises, shows the harsh degree in which energy inefficiency is costing our wallets and the planet. However, it also unearths important data. Information from the satellite will help urban planners and business leaders to identify which buildings are wasting energy and need better insulation and then take remedial action.

But why is this so crucial? Well, the urgent global mission to reduce carbon emissions and transition to a sustainable future means that retrofitting and improving the energy performance of buildings have become pivotal components of the solution.

In the UK, the impetus to retrofit and make buildings more energy efficient is strong. However, the sluggish pace of progress remains a concern. So, what are the hurdles slowing down progress? And which crucial measures can accelerate the process and help the UK achieve its net-zero goals?

Let’s take a look

The urgency of building retrofitting
According to the UK Green Building Council, 80% of the buildings that will be occupied in 2050 have already been built. These buildings account for a substantial portion of the UK’s carbon emissions, making them a significant contributor to climate change. So, it’s crucial that collective stakeholders, including Government bodies, policymakers, building owners and industry professionals, embark on a sustainable refurbishment and retrofitting programme without delay. The good news is that there are already existing technologies that can help promote sustainable operations and save energy costs, and by adopting a three-step approach of strategise, digitise and decarbonise these can be implemented correctly. The first step is to define different levels of technological implementation, impact on emissions reductions and operational disruption in buildings. The next focuses on digitisation and involves measuring and monitoring building energy and carbon with connected data to establish an emissions baseline and record reductions. Then, the final step focuses on decarbonisation. Here, various technologies and solutions are implemented to reduce emissions.

The UK’s commitment to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 has placed immense importance on making the country’s building stock more energy efficient. Irrespective of this deadline, decarbonising our built environment would dramatically improve the UK’s energy security by reducing our reliance on volatile fossil fuel prices.

It will also encourage investment in low-carbon technology, such as heat pumps, heat networks and hydrogen, while lowering home and corporate bills. Improvements to substandard homes would even lead to positive nationwide health outcomes, with the poor health of occupants due to health hazards like cold, damp and falls currently costing the NHS an estimated £2bn per year.

To achieve these benefits, the UK needs a major retrofit programme, which includes upskilling workforces to support decarbonisation efforts. It will require immediate investment in skills and leadership, as well as clearly-defined standards towards which we can all strive. The aim must be to achieve 21% CO2 savings by 2030 and retrofit decarbonisation solutions to 27 million households by 2040 to reduce energy consumption and emissions from buildings in a way that aligns with the larger national climate agenda. However, it won’t be a simple transition. First, we need to explore the challenges so that they can be prepared for and overcome.

Obstacles to achieving building efficiency

Despite the benefits of retrofitting, several hurdles are slowing progress towards more energy-efficient UK building stock.

An estimated 10% of buildings in London are graded EPC F or G, meaning these commercial establishments will face a hefty, extensive retrofit bill. To stimulate investment in large-scale commercial retrofit projects, the capital allowance system must be reformed to better support and incentivise long-term investment in carbon reduction and energy-efficiency solutions. Failing to eliminate financial barriers to energy-efficiency upgrades is a failure to realise the enormous task that the country faces in reaching net zero. So, it must be addressed.

Another of the significant challenges in achieving building efficiency via retrofits is the prevalent lack of know how in the field. Retrofitting for improved energy-efficiency is a complex task, requiring expertise in various building systems, such as heating, ventilation, lighting and fields like architecture, engineering and environmental science.

Retrofitting projects must adhere to building codes and regulations, making expertise essential to ensure compliance and avoid delays and additional costs. Effective project management is also critical, demanding proficiency across planning, coordination and execution to meet timelines, budgets and energy-efficiency goals. Many retrofitting projects involve integrating renewable energy sources like solar panels, calling for expertise in renewable energy systems and their seamless integration into existing building structures to achieve optimal results.

Energy audits and assessments, a critical first step in retrofit projects, also necessitate specialised knowledge to identify energy waste areas and offer specific solutions. So, too, do the cost evaluation of energy-efficient renovations to maximise energy savings while staying within budget restrictions. And with constant technology breakthroughs, up-to-date knowledge of recent innovations is critical for selecting the most effective retrofitting solutions.

Steps to accelerate building retrofitting

To supercharge the transition towards a more energy-efficient building stock in the UK, a holistic approach is indispensable. This multifaceted strategy must encompass financial support, education and training, regulatory reform, public awareness initiatives and the integration of cutting-edge technologies for pinpointing areas requiring immediate attention. By combining these elements, the UK can expedite the retrofitting process, reduce carbon emissions and make substantial progress toward its net-zero goals, ultimately creating a more sustainable and energy-efficient future for all stakeholders.

London operator of HotSat-1, SatVu, already plans to launch seven additional spacecraft. Let’s hope that by navigating the aforementioned challenges, and following the steps above, the next imagery that the satellites produce will paint a fair greener picture of the Earth’s energy efficiency.

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