Europe’s guerrilla war for energy efficiency

December 9, 2010 | 00:00

Europe’s guerrilla war for energy efficiency

Backed by the EU’s Concerto programme, 58 cities in Europe are carrying out energy efficiency and sustainability projects, often in very difficult circumstances, and sometimes with highly instructive results. The biggest challenge, says Rudy Rooth of Dutch consultancy Kema, who managed to install a biogas-fired district heating system in a low-income neighbourhood in Amsterdam, was ‘getting the tenants involved and enthusiastic’. Stefan Tostmann of the European Commission, who is responsible for the Concerto programme, is convinced of the tremendous potential “his” city projects offer. ‘I can already tell you that tremendous gains can be achieved, much more than the 20 percent the EU is currently aiming at.’

Europe’s built environment accounts for 40 percent of total energy consumption. To realise the EU’s 2020 targets for emission reductions and energy efficiency, it is here that large improvements have to be made. But that’s easier said than done. Whereas a subsidy or tax break might entice a car owner to buy a more fuel-efficient vehicle, it is much more difficult to persuade households to change their behaviour. One problem is that investments in energy efficiency are characterized by high up-front costs and often fairly long pay-back times. In addition, in many cases decisions have to be reached by consensus - for example a decision about a joint investment in the renovation of an apartment building, or about installing something like biogas-generated district heating for an entire neighbourhood.

One place where they managed to do just that – install a biogas-fired district heating system – is in the unlikely neighbourhood of Amsterdam Nieuw-West (“New West”), a low-income district of 70,000 inhabitants in Holland’s largest city. Here a programme is being carried out called Ecostiler, one of three “sister” projects under the same name. The other two Ecostiler-projects take place in the borough of Lambeth in London and in Måbjerg in Denmark. Ecostiler (which stands for “Energy efficient Community Stimulation by use and Integration of Local Energy Resources”) is part of a broader European-wide programme called Concerto, an initiative of the Directorate General for Energy and Transport of the European Commission.

Concerto was launched in 2003 to ‘support local communities in developing and demonstrating concrete strategies and actions that are both sustainable and highly energy efficient’. The focus of the programme is on the integration of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency measures within the built environment. Today, a total of 58 European cities are carrying out projects with intriguing

‘In some parts people will resist every change while elsewhere they may be more than willing to move into a house that seems to come straight out of a Star Wars movie’
names like Sorcer, Staccato, Holistic, Renaissance and Ecostiler, each with its own focus and approach. Sorcer, for example, focuses on energy-efficient dwellings with a maximum use of sustainable energy, while Renaissance aims to create sustainable model districts. Many of the programmes consist of several comparable projects in different cities. Thus, the three Ecostiler project all focus on the implementation of biogas-generated (district) heating. So far, €150 million has been granted to European cities under the Concerto programme.


New West isn’t Amsterdam’s most fancy district. Its residents are mostly ethnic minorities with below-average incomes. Streets are lined with unimaginative post-war concrete apartment blocks, mostly social housing. Not the most promising area for a “sustainable” turnaround, if it wasn’t for two distinct advantages: a dedicated city council and the proximity of both a sewage plant and a garbage incinerator.

Before Concerto appeared on the scene, the city council had already decided on a drastic overhaul of the entire neighbourhood. Some buildings would be demolished and replaced, others renovated. Furthermore, by 2015 the district’s carbon footprint was to be halved compared to 1990. The big question was how.

Rudy Rooth of Kema, project manager of Ecostiler: 'We had to make choices'
‘The vision was already there’, says Rudy Rooth, Ecostiler’s project manager. Rooth works for Kema, a leading Dutch energy consultancy. Kema had worked in the past for the nearby sewage plant and incinerator and was familiar with the possibilities these offered for district heating. Concerto gave Kema the opportunity it needed to put them into practice. ‘When Concerto was launched, we brought all parties together, formulated a plan and applied for a grant’, says Rooth.

Thus Ecostiler Amsterdam was born. The project received a €3 million grant from Brussels. The money was invested in the renovation of flats and the implementation of the district heating system.

Biggest challenge

Rooth points out that, although € 3 million is ‘a substantial amount, it’s only a small percentage of the total investment involved in the project’. So, he says, ‘we had to make choices. We selected 300 showcase apartments where we invested in things like extra roof insulation, special glazing, showers with heat recovery and solar panels.’

According to Rooth, the biggest challenge was getting the tenants involved and enthusiastic. ‘Most people in this neighborhood are unwilling or unable to improve their energy situation. Convincing them that a rent increase would amply repay itself by lower energy bills was very hard.’ The solution Kema came up with was to offer a guarantee scheme. ‘If they agreed to pay an extra €20 or €30 per month, we guaranteed matching or higher savings on their energy bill. We promised them that if it didn’t work out, their rent increase would be repaid. It worked, but to minimise our risk we had to do a very meticulous baseline measurement and make sure that everything was working properly.’

Even without the guarantee scheme, Rooth says thorough baseline measurement and monitoring are the keys to Ecostiler’s succes. ‘Without this you have no way of knowing whether you’ve met your goals, nor can you compare your results with other projects.’

That sounds obvious, but in the first few years of Concerto, analysis and monitoring of the many geographically scattered projects left much to be desired. This has improved greatly with the introduction of Concerto Plus, which now provides an organisation responsible for the coordinated analysis, monitoring and dissemination of the results from all projects. It facilitates and stimulates networking activities as well as the exchange of best practices.

Small investors

‘Before Concerto Plus we had no common standard of measurement’, says Stefan Tostmann, head of unit at the Directorate General for Energy and Transport of the European Commission and responsible

The Renaissance project in Lyon proved such a success that the French government used the experience to tighten the building energy standards for the whole of France
for the Concerto programme. ‘How do you compare a Swedish apartment with a Dutch one, taking the differences in climate and building traditions into account? And what about the differences in national building regulations? Sweden’s directives are already very strict when it comes to energy measures. It’s much harder to realize a 20 percent efficiency gain there than for instance in Spain, where the standards are much lower. One of our Spanish projects realised an 80 percent gain! You can’t expect to copy that everywhere, but thanks to Concerto Plus we now have quite a clear view of the possibilities. I can already tell you that tremendous gains can be achieved, much more than the 20 percent the EU is currently aiming at.’

However, as a result of the financial crisis, some developers have postponed or downsized their Concerto-backed projects, making it harder to achieve the potential of energy efficiency in the EU. Tostmann: ‘Our leverage in the projects is limited since we’re relatively small investors. We’ve accepted our dependence on bigger decisions. But even as a small investor our leverage can sometimes be large. The label “EU-approved” may smoothen a project developer’s negotiations with the banks considerably. He’ll also be assured of local political attention, since we expect participating cities to formulate a long-term energy plan. All mayors are personally involved.’

Concerto keeps a keen eye on the socio-economic context of its projects. ‘When it comes to homes, tradition is written with a capital T’, says Tostmann. ‘These traditions differ tremendously per region. In some parts people will resist every change while elsewhere they may be more than willing to move into a house that seems to come straight out of a Star Wars movie. You have to take these differences into consideration. Also, if you force a complete neighbourhood out of their homes for months for a large-scale renovation, you may be doing more harm than good.’

Electric cooking

Tostmann concedes that ‘it’s a constant struggle to keep the cooperation going, not just with developers and residents, but also with politicians and industry. At one project involving district heating, the gas supplier threatened to cut the supply since maintaining the gas infrastructure would no longer be worthwhile for him if the gas was only used for cooking. This would force the residents to switch to electric cooking. Such unwanted side-effects should be overcome if we want to establish a better balanced, decentralized and more sustainable energy supply system.’

Tostmann emphasizes that Concerto is part of a research programme and therefore just the start of a much bigger movement. The first aim is to get a better understanding of what works and what doesn’t. The findings will hopefully lead to better directives and inspire all European cities to take an extra step towards a more sustainable energy future. For now the future looks promising as the Concerto programme is slowly getting results. Sometimes even spectacular ones: the Renaissance project in Lyon proved such a success that the French government used the experience to tighten the building energy standards for the whole of France.

Concerto becomes Smart Cities

At a “final forum” in Brussels on 6 and 7 December, participants in the Concerto initiative shared their experiences and heralded the successor programme to Concerto: the Smart Cities initiative.

Brigitte Bach, Head of Energy Department from the Austrian Institute of Technology (AIT), said that ‘what we want to do is avoid CO2 emissions to a maximum and move towards carbon neutral cities.’ What is important, she said, is that cities ‘take an integrated approach to urban planning and encompass measures including renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, poly-generation, research, monitoring, and training.’

The city representatives of Nantes (France), Weilerbach (Germany), Budapest (Hungary), Lyon (France), Hannover (Germany) and Torino (Italy) outlined how Concerto impacted upon them and how they have impacted Europe. Pascale Chiron, Vice-President of Nantes-Metropole labelled the experience of Concerto as the ‘big adventure’, having been involved since 2006, seeing 80,000 m2 of office and residential eco-buildings constructed, with a cut of up to 50 % in primary energy consumption.

Other speakers noted how measures introduced have had an influence at the national level. ‘Concerto experts helped change legislation on the national level’, said the city representative from Lyon. All cities highlighted the fact that involving residents in any refurbishment or construction projects is essential.

European Commissioner for Energy, Günther Oettinger, congratulated all cities currently engaged in Concerto, and spoke of the central role they will play in the ‘new generation Smart Cities initiative’. ‘Energy efficiency is a European matter”, said Oettinger, but ‘the instruments to achieve this must be used locally.’

More information on the Concerto programme:
More information on Ecostiler:
A video about Amsterdam’s Ecostiler project can be seen here
For the European Commission’s energy efficiency policies, see
The Smart Cities programme is part of the Commission’s Strategic Energy Technology (SET) Plan, see
For some interesting views on managing energy technology and achieving energy efficiency, we recommend the website of Walt Patterson.


Loading comments...
related items