Sean Smith: Let's make the most of Scottish expertise in energy efficiency

RISING gas and electricity prices, more household income being spent at the petrol pumps and the feel-good factor with being "green" – energy efficient homes have never been more attractive.

New building regulations just announced by the government will help Scotland put more of these homes on the market. The regulations will mean a 30 per cent energy reduction target for new homes – the starting point for the six-year plan towards lower energy cost housing and the 2016 zero carbon targets.

House builders have already expressed their discontent at the new regulations. On the one hand you can see their point. This is an industry that has been battered and bruised in the economic downturn. But, there are rewards in sight.

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The regulations will mean they have to build more energy efficient homes and develop new products – both offer commercial opportunities and put Scotland at the forefront of innovation.

The next step change in energy standards will be a 60 per cent reduction target in 2013. The research and development required to meet this target will be crucial for the housing and construction sector and for Scotland's manufacturing base for construction and energy efficiency related products. Micro-renewable technology, such as solar water heaters, ground source heat pumps and solar thermal systems will become more and more popular.

Scotland's businesses and researchers are well placed to deliver and support these new technologies. The current CIC-Start Online project involves seven universities supporting R&D for the Scottish construction and energy product manufacturing base.

The Building Performance Assessment Centre, "Hangar 17" in Fife, where Edinburgh Napier University is academic partner, is the only test facility of its kind in the UK which facilitates rapid prototype build and testing for future low energy housing and system components. It allows the industry to evaluate technical compatibility against new regulations.

The behaviour of building occupants hugely influences energy usage and is integral to achieving future low carbon targets and energy efficiency improvements. Scotland globally leads on real time energy display devices such as Ewgeco, which is based in Perth. The device allows occupants to track their electricity, water and gas usage and early trials in domestic, public and commercial buildings are showing significant energy cost savings.

Currently, the building regulations do not require real time energy display devices. Why wait for smart meters in 2014 when Scotland has key technologies now?

The impact of future energy price rises, coupled with forthcoming skills shortages, will lead to increased local sourcing of materials and more offsite assembly of building systems. The global market will potentially be replaced, in parts, by the local market. This bodes well for the Scottish construction, manufacturing and raw material sectors.

The rise in energy prices alone will lead to a substantial demand for micro-renewables. The future new regulatory homes from 2013, which will have to incorporate such technologies, may be well placed to reduce the impact of external energy market forces.

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The future energy and maintenance costs of our existing housing stock, public and private, will be substantial. This may lead to a significant surge in future demand for new, low energy housing. It may appear like pain today for gain tomorrow, but tackling the technical regulatory challenges now could play a crucial role in preparing for the surge when it comes.

• Prof Sean Smith, is Director of the Institute for Sustainable Construction, Edinburgh Napier University.

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