In its latest energy roadmap, the International Energy Agency (IEA) says dramatic energy savings could be achieved rapidly if policies which promote energy efficient heating and cooling technologies are adopted.

It is estimated that buildings -- residential, commercial, and public -- account for one-third of the globe's total final energy consumption.  The IEA says this number could be reduced very quickly as a result of the bounty of energy efficient heating and cooling technologies currently available.

According to its report, implementing solar thermal, combined heat and power, heat-pump, and thermal energy storage systems could reduce fossil fuels' share in building space and water heating between 5% and 20% by 2050.  The Agency figures these technologies could cut carbon emissions by 2 gigatonnes in the next 40 years -- roughly one-quarter of today's current building emissions.

Bo Diczfalusy, the IEA's Director of Sustainable Energy Policy and Technology said potential for reducing buildings' energy consumption is immense:  "Energy efficiency and CO2-free technologies for heating and cooling in buildings offer many low-cost options for reducing energy consumption, consumers' energy bills and CO2 emissions in buildings, with technologies that are available today.  Given that space heating and cooling and hot water production consumer perhaps half of all energy consumed in buildings today, the savings potential is very large."

Given that technology is not a barrier, the IEA's report identifies public policy as the most vital requirement needed to make the shift toward more efficient energy consumption in buildings. 

New public policy is critical, in the IEA's opinion, because it can circumvent the widespread market barriers currently standing in the way of the deployment of low-carbon heating and cooling equipment.  The report explains that if those purchasing heating and cooling equipment are not given adequate incentives they are not likely to purchase the more efficient technology.

Therefore, the policy needs to be broad and deep in its scope; so it can reach all the stakeholders in the building sector.  The IEA's roadmap highlights four areas where policy support is critical.

  1. Increased funding for technology research, development, and deployment (RD&D).  An additional US$3.5 billion per year is needed by 2030.
  2. Improved information for analyzing the energy and carbon savings of heating and cooling technologies as well as their life-cycle financial benefits.
  3. New policies to transform the sector and increase the low up-take of energy efficient and low carbon heating and cooling technologies.
  4. Greater international collaboration and research and development of low carbon heating and cooling technologies.

If strong policy is implemented, the IEA sees the number of installed residential heat pumps growing more than four times by 2050, increasing from today's 800 million to 3.5 billion.  Additionally, solar thermal (water heated by the sun for space and water heating) capacity would grow by a factor of 25, while combined heat and power systems (simultaneous production of heat and electricity for the building to use) would increase 45 fold.  Finally, by 2050, more than half of all space heating and hot water systems could be equipped with thermal energy storage, allowing buildings the ability to store excess energy.

Photo by renjith krishnan.