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‘Near zero’ carbon buildings

Monitoring of energy efficiency measures at St Nicholas College primary school will provide ideas for retrofitting of more schools in Malta and the Med. Photo: Water and Energy Agency.

Monitoring of energy efficiency measures at St Nicholas College primary school will provide ideas for retrofitting of more schools in Malta and the Med. Photo: Water and Energy Agency.

Technologies for reducing carbon emissions from buildings are advancing rapidly. Anne Zammit reports on a multi-nation ZeroCO2 initiative.

A proposed action plan to promote zero carbon in the construction or renovation of buildings is under consideration in Malta.

The 16-point plan promoting ZeroCO2 buildings – or as near to zero carbon as possible – is the result of an EU-funded project linking Malta with seven regional partners.

By the end of the year all buildings occupied by public authorities are already obliged to achieve nearly-zero energy status. Under the action plan, this will apply to all new and renovated buildings within 35 months from now, leaving scant time to prepare for changes in the way buildings are constructed.

The first round of regional meetings for stakeholders was held by project partners in Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, Lithuania, Greece and Malta in 2016.

Since then the Malta arm of the Interreg-Europe project has come up with a policy action plan. As policy advisors, the Water and Energy Agency and the Building Regulations Office have put forward the plan to the government for due consideration.

A strong message from this project is an appeal to the EU Commission to consider taking a more flexible approach to classifying buildings as Zero CO2 or “near-Zero CO2”.

There is much scope for expanding the many designs and technologies now available on the market as costs continue to come down. Looking into why some schemes have been unsuccessful, and upgrading them, is on the cards. For example, take-up of the energy audit voucher scheme offered to small and medium enterprises has been slack.

Half the recommendations in the policy action plan proposal are “soft” measures which do not require much in the way of funding to bring them into being. These range from templates for energy performance contracts to making unbiased advice more readily available for the best way to make a public building low carbon.

Methods of achieving low emissions for public buildings vary from one sector to another. Residential blocks, offices, health centres, schools and others require individual measures. Ideally, change is worked in at the design stage which looks at facades, systems, geothermal opportunities, roof rights, etc.

A one-stop shop for all financial incentive measures is also proposed. Revision of grants for solar water heaters is deemed “essential” to regenerate interest.

Maltese schools, according to the ZeroCO2 report, can lower their carbon footprint with thoughtfully designed shading and other passive measures so that air-conditioning would not be necessary.

From January 1, 2019, any new or renovated building which belongs to the government must be zero energy. The project extends this to other buildings used by the public: banks, restaurants, hotels, schools etc.

Governments, and even the EU Commission itself, need to keep up with advances in technology for reducing carbon emissions from buildings, said university lecturer and engineer Charles Yousif, who chaired a recent conference for the partners.

He pointed out that once the action plan was in place, architects and engineers would be relieved from the task of making cumbersome calculations on how to achieve Zero CO2 standards in buildings since the project has made baseline results available to all.

Dr Yousif added that if the authorities made data on energy performance certificates for buildings more accessible then a clear standard for different situations could be set. Penthouses, offices and other types of buildings with specific uses could be designed with an eye on thermal comfort year-round and built to give higher energy savings with lower (or zero net) emissions. 

Improving building energy performance is key to reaching a compromise with the European Commission over funding of a €13m shield for the Mater Dei oncology centre, engineer Paul Vassallo, who worked on the project, pointed out.

A substantial reduction of 1,265 tons per year in CO2 emissions at the Sir Anthony Mamo Oncology Centre was accepted as mitigation for the project to go ahead.   

Exploring different ways of using energy efficiency and renewable energy to cut down on carbon dioxide has already nudged the forerunners closer to carbon neutrality and beyond (see sidebar).

A revision of the EU directive on energy performance of buildings is soon to become law. The European Parliament, Council and Commission must now agree on revised renewable energy and energy efficiency directives. Malta and its regional partners in the ZeroCO2 project have shared their knowledge and experience towards upgrading these directives.

University of Malta researcher and engineer Damien Gatt referred to Priority Axis 4 of EU regional development and cohesion funds for 2014-2020 enabling a shift towards a more low-carbon economy.

Monitoring and reporting on government’s implementation of any action plan proposals will continue over the next two years.

A ‘positive energy’ school

A highly successful pilot project taken on by the Water and Energy Agency has been the “deep renovation” of a school in Siġġiewi. Partly financed by 2007-2013 European regional development funding, the primary school has excelled as a model for good practice of a “positive green energy” building.

On average, across the year, St Nicholas College primary school produces more energy from renewable sources than it consumes in fossil-fuel generated electricity. Photovoltaic panels create overhang shading to help prevent heat entering the building in summer.

In winter the sun is at a lower angle, providing light and warmth for classrooms when most needed. Since the school’s demand for hot water is low, large storage systems were replaced with small instant electric water heaters.

Classroom walls with the highest exposure to harsh temperatures were insulated. High efficiency infra-red ceiling heaters and dimmable LED lights were installed.

Building energy software simulation identified energy retrofit measures for the school, leading to cuts in carbon dioxide emissions of 115 tonnes per year.

The project has been recognised by the joint secretariat of the EU Commission’s Interreg-Europe programme as one of the best examples of good practice across Europe to demonstrate how school buildings can be adapted to generate more energy than they consume.

According to the final report on the school’s transition to a positive energy building, in the early stages it was not easy to explain new concepts and technologies to the members of staff. Automated shading devices, a relatively new technology for Malta, also proved a challenge for installers. Yet initial difficulties were overcome and lessons learned for the future.

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