With the UK’s power capacity margin falling to low levels, demand side reduction is vital to keep the country in business

The news that the European Commission started legal proceedings against the UK government for failing to set out how it will comply with the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPBD) - including rollout of Display Energy Certificates to the private sector and reforms to Part L of the Building Regulations - will be no surprise to the construction industry. However, the size of the potential fine is awesome - €9.6m. Ironically it comes just as DECC has launched its energy efficiency strategy.

The government is making highly publicised steps to improve energy efficiency - the Green Deal and Energy Company Obligation. But if the Commission’s case is anything to go by, word will soon get around that such measures have failed to be effectively implemented. That is not much good for the environment, our deteriorating energy picture or indeed for keeping construction business turning over. There is nothing like uncertainty to persuade construction’s funders to hold off for another week.

It is the nature of our industry to respond best to legislation - it drives and influences action. Policy turns into ‘best practice’. We may not like change, but given change is inevitable in the present energy and environmental background, we need legislation. And not only on the statute book but enforced on the ground.

It is the nature of our industry to respond best to legislation - it drives and influences action

Measures, such as making DECs compulsory for public buildings, are a proven benefit - NOT a burden. The Chartered Institute of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE) wrote to the Chancellor of the Exchequer last year calling for the introduction of appropriately designed Display Energy Certificates (DECs) in the commercial sector. CIBSE highlighted the results of the government’s work on its own estate to show the scale of benefits: Based on DEC data, in the first year of office, the coalition saw savings of just over £13m in energy bills for the central estate; savings that cost less than a tenth of that sum to produce. DECs - like any other key performance indicator - enabled real world improvement.

But there are other issues at play. Ofgem’s CEO only last week described to the audience at the CIBSE Annual Lecture how they estimate as shortly as 2015/16 there could be just a 4% margin in UK installed energy capacity, and that is in a power system relying in good part on LNG for power stations from some geo-politically frenetic parts of the world. May be the coal supply uncertainties of the 1970s have faded from national memory?

CIBSE have proven through the building performance assessment work we carry out that real world energy usage can be reduced by 20% just through implementing simple, common sense measures. Our top performers in the Building Performance Awards go further - slashing fuel usage by up to 50% using technology and engineering know-how that is already within our reach.

Reducing energy demand might once have sounded counter-cultural to a naïve idea of economic growth. Now it is time to see the match between environmental and economic imperatives. Managing energy may seem to be a bit of a boring, technical, backwater down in the boiler room. It is anything but. It can help us to keep the lights on, keep the less well off warm, reduce our dependence on imported energy, reduce the levels of investment needed for new generating capacity, and contribute to a stronger economy.

The Commission must be mystified why they need to bring action at all.

Professor David Fisk is president of the Chartered Institution of Building Services Engineers (CIBSE)