How can universities respond to energy crises and societal challenges of green transition?

Jarek Kurnitski (Tallinn University of Technology) argues that universities should respond to crises and societal challenges by establishing curriculums dealing with energy and building technical systems that would be essential to implement Fit for 55 and Renovation Wave targets.
6th December 2022
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The societal challenge to improve the energy performance of buildings began in Europe long before our present energy crises. Europe has been, to a large extent, dependent on fossil fuel imports which have been consumed mostly in buildings, transport and industry sectors. Of these three big sectors, buildings are the largest share, with 40% of final and primary energy use in the EU and, therefore, offer many low-hanging fruits to improve efficiency.

For this reason, systemic energy performance improvement in buildings started in 2002 when the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive was first launched. This policy has resulted in the emergence of nearly zero-energy buildings in 2020, as well as extensive deep renovation targets – to be doubled according to the ‘Renovation Wave strategy’ and the building stock to be transformed to zero-emission buildings by 2050 according to the latest directive proposal currently under revision.

Does this policy have any connection to universities? Upon first look perhaps not, as engineers and builders themselves could just remove unnecessary energy use in buildings. However, looking more deeply we see that major rather than incremental energy performance improvements are needed – energy use is not to be reduced by 10% but by a factor of 5 to 10 depending on the building, this makes an evident need for master-level education of energy specialists.

Skilful engineers can: (i) find a balance between energy efficiency and renewable energy measures, (ii) design buildings and renovations which do not contribute additional load to electricity grids, (iii) and improve indoor comfort and ventilation, especially in the avoidance of summer overheating in new and renovated buildings.

75% of European building stock is not energy efficient and needs to be deeply renovated to execute a new vision to transform these into zero-emission buildings by 2050. This will result in 146 million renovations in only 30 years and the cost for Estonia alone is estimated to be €24 billion; across Europe that figure is significantly larger.

Because of their exceptional and long-lasting task, higher-level university education could have considerable technical and economic consequences in this area; the role of knowledge and education has been stressed by performance-based targets in the directive for stricter rules on the energy performance of buildings. The challenge is in targeting a so-called cost-optimal energy performance level - defined as the lowest possible life cycle cost in 30 years - and realising this with all possible technical measures, which in principle may compete with others. In such a framework, well-educated and qualified specialists could make a significant difference, and this has been demonstrated in Estonia where cost-optimal energy performance levels have developed so that energy use in new buildings was reduced by a factor of two within 5 years; in other words, for the same money one will get a flat or house with two times less energy use!

As energy performance requirements were first applied to new buildings in 2008 it was possible to start with a relatively small number of specialists conducting energy calculations at that time. In Estonia, a dynamic hourly energy simulation with commercial simulation tools was taken into use from the beginning, opening a door for advanced solutions and fast development. Energy specialists capable of meaningful design and work with sophisticated energy simulation tools were simultaneously trained with continuous education courses and the then recently launched energy performance master degree programme. Additionally, this was made hand-in-hand with qualification systems which introduced new qualifications for energy auditors, energy specialists and energy modellers.

Educating a couple of years of a specific energy-oriented masters degree showed that it could be more efficient to redesign existing curriculums by adding new disciplines. Whilst Estonia was one of few countries with an HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning) university education tradition, it was relatively easy to redesign the HVAC curriculum so that it included a solid amount of energy performance and energy simulation subjects. On the other hand, building physics and moisture safety issues were added to the civil engineering curriculum as energy-efficient buildings needed also to be healthy and durable.

Alternative development paths with a less active role for universities have also been visible in some larger countries and, consequently, we find that developments take much longer. In these cases, professional societies have organised continuous education courses which offer basic skills, whilst governments have developed official calculation tools which typically provide energy calculation with monthly resolution but are not capable of considering dynamic effects which can be highly important in the design of highly performing zero emission buildings. This development has even resulted in the blocking of efforts to include hourly calculation to the directive for stricter rules on the energy performance of buildings; such a provision is much needed, for instance, to calculate how much on-site generated photovoltaic electricity can be used in buildings or for realistic heat pump calculation.

Finally, facing our current crises, it is fortunate that our energy policy efforts started so long ago; across the EU in each member state, there is some university or continuous education at some level available. Currently, intensive energy savings are required, thus more energy specialists are to be educated. The experience of developing energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies shows that a lack of specific disciplines may reduce progress and even slow down the achievement of EU targets. Therefore, it is essential for universities to take an active role and offer responsive education in energy crises – which can be seen as a real contribution to green transition. Establishing continuous education modules can be done quickly and the same courses can be integrated into existing curriculums or new ones if large educational gaps exist. University studies take time, but it is evident that solving this societal challenge will take at least 30 years and well-educated specialists can boost the transition and save money in the long run.

Jarek Kurnitski, Head of the Department of Civil Engineering and Architecture, Tallinn University of Technology

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