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A Dutch Approach To Cutting Carbon Emissions From Buildings Is Coming To America

Sep 1, 2021
Originally published on September 1, 2021 12:10 pm

Updated September 1, 2021 at 2:10 PM ET

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — The Biden administration has announced in recent months plans to significantly reduce carbon emissions over the next decade or two, and cut them on a net basis to zero by 2050. Other developed nations have made similar pledges.

But experts say governments have not always provided enough details, or action, to ensure these objectively ambitious targets — entailing massive changes to economies and societies — can be met.

One big obstacle: hundreds of millions of existing homes. Without some form of action, most of today's homes will still be inhabited in 2050 with inefficient heating and lighting that causes unnecessary carbon emissions. The United Nations estimates that residential buildings are responsible for around a fifth of all global emissions.

In the Netherlands, a government initiative forced engineers, architects, entrepreneurs, marketing specialists and financiers to get together and figure out the best way to solve this problem of retrofitting older homes cheaply and quickly.

The result of those meetings was a concept called "Energiesprong" — or "energy leap" — that has formed the basis of efforts to mass produce and industrialize the once haphazard and expensive retrofit process.

Now that approach has been replicated in several other countries, including the U.S., where New York state is investing $30 million in a similar effort.

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The U.N. estimates that 20% of global carbon emissions come from residential buildings. A Dutch organization thinks it might have found a way to drastically cut that number. Here's Willem Marx at The Hague.

JOKE TOONE: (Non-English language spoken).

WILLEM MARX: Joke and Anton Toone have lived in the same apartment in the Dutch capital for the past four decades. Last year, their building got a makeover with triple-glazed windows and a new insulated facade.

J TOONE: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: "And the whole house is now warm," Joke says, "with much lower energy costs." Almost 6,000 other Dutch homes have been through a similar retrofit devised by the nonprofit group Energiesprong or Energy Leap.

RON VAN ERCK: The end objective should be buying a retrofit as easy as buying a new kitchen in IKEA.

MARX: Ron van Erck helped found Energiesprong in 2010, and it's worked with banks, regulators, engineers and entrepreneurs to develop the best retrofit approach for homes worldwide.

VAN ERCK: Eighty percent of the buildings that will be here in 2050, at least in Europe, have already been built. And they were not built to the standard that had in mind that we had to eliminate carbon emissions.

MARX: And so unless we do that to those older buildings, we're never going to get there.

VAN ERCK: I wouldn't say never but not within the timeframe that we got left. We don't have 200 years to phase out carbon.

MARX: At this factory in the small Dutch town of Lemelerveld, they're prefabricating facades that can simply be hooked on to outside of existing old homes, improving their energy efficiency by 80%. Lianda Sjerps-Koomen from the facade manufacturer Rc Panels explains they use lasers to measure a building's dimensions. Precisely tailored doors and windows are added to the panels in the factory.

LIANDA SJERPS-KOOMEN: They fit exactly.

MARX: To the millimeter.

SJERPS-KOOMEN: To the millimeter - because if you don't, the door just doesn't open.

MARX: The units are shipped and a complex of 300 apartments could be wrapped up in a matter of hours. Another element of an Energiesprong retrofit is how these homes are heated. A separate Dutch firm called Factory Zero builds a single module with heat pumps, electric boilers and solar panels, all computer controlled. At $14,000, the modules are expensive. But company founder Jasper Van Den Munckhof says the cost is worth it.

JASPER VAN DEN MUNCKHOF: Your energy bill goes to zero. Literally, it goes to zero. The banks in the Netherlands actually give you an extra loan on top of your maximum mortgage if you take a net zero home like we provide.

MARX: Now, the Energiesprong method's getting global attention, including from the U.S.

DOREEN HARRIS: Decarbonizing New York's buildings are frankly one of the biggest challenges in achieving our climate goals.

MARX: Doreen Harris heads New York State's Energy Research and Development Authority, which recently launched a similar initiative based on the Dutch program.

HARRIS: RetrofitNY is a $30 million initiative which is focused on bringing similar technologies to bear here in New York that have been successfully deployed through Energiesprong.

MARX: But there are 6 million buildings in New York producing almost half its total greenhouse gas emissions. Harris acknowledges the state can only really kickstart such a colossal task.

HARRIS: What we see ourselves as is a catalyst for the broader investments that are needed.

MARX: Dozens of building owners responsible for almost 400,000 housing units in New York state have already signed up to this approach. Back in their warm Dutch home, Joke and Anton Toone are already seeing a benefit.

ANTON TOONE: (Non-English language spoken).

MARX: They've already got money back on their gas and central heating costs, they say, and expect even more savings to come.

For NPR News, I'm Willem Marx in The Hague, the Netherlands.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "RAPPAHANNOCK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.