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May 19, 2023

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Emily Braham

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Reflections from the Study Tour

Emily Braham, Director of Strategy & Operations, Energiesprong UK

Heading home on the train from another great Study Tour which we put together to see what we can learn from our North-West European partners.  This time we visited Lille, Belgium and the Netherlands (NL), over three days and two nights. The cohort joining the trip included innovators and national and local government representatives, and the trip was instigated and sponsored by Innovate UK with net zero heat learning in mind, and part funded by our Interreg NWE funded project - MUSTBE0.  

Lots of thought-provoking site and factory visits, presentations, discussions and debates.  It’s important to understand and share knowledge about what works, and also what doesn’t, and our hosts and presenters were really open about their lessons.  I thought it was worth sharing more widely what we learned and talked about, and some of my reflections.  It’s a long read, but we packed a lot in!

Regional and Local Government can catalyse significant change

In France, we saw how regional action is driving innovation.  We visited three MUSTBE0 Interreg NWE funded demonstrator projects including two housing schemes and one school, and we heard about other projects being delivered in North-West France from our speakers.    

Anne Godeau primary school in Raismes, France

We got a real sense of excitement about how much is happening locally in North-West France because of the regional, municipality and city action, which is catalysing investment from banks and bringing manufacturing back to the region, from Angieszka Bogucka from Euratechnologies (and previously our very own Energiesprong #netzero hero).  The Euratechnologies incubator is helping to launch and advance innovative businesses who are addressing issues in Proptech amongst other areas.  Businesses are given a space to grow along with support and we saw a presentation from one of the businesses, Planet Soar, which is benefitting from the incubator, with the fabulous Michelle Cross presenting.

What will the heating technologies for a net zero future be?  District Heating, biomass, hybrid heat pumps?  

District heating has many barriers and challenges to implement but has a part to play in all the strategies we heard about. It’s useful in places where insulation will only ever be minimal.  

Felix Barthelemy from the City of Lille told us how they are expanding their district heating network and setting rules to ensure all buildings which have sufficient heat demand switch to this at trigger points (when replacing the heating system) and that they connect when they are built.  This will help save significant (hundreds) of tonnes of carbon.  

Sebastien Delpont from Greenflex gave us a brief summary of the D2 grids project, which is exploring how different heat generation and uses can be connected together in an efficient way using renewable power or waste heat to provide heat for other buildings or users.  The D2 Grids project is looking at heat from sources such as mine water, waste heat from servers and high industry outputs.  Working out how to map these different sources and demands is an interesting challenge, maybe one for a tech solution….

How will district heating efficiently contribute to the net zero challenge and combine with other net zero strategies?  A hot topic indeed! One of the issues with older district heating networks is the high temperatures the water is heated to, which means it is difficult to add renewable sources which are more efficient at lower temperatures.  Higher temperatures are typically achieved through burning something - previously coal, and now waste in Lille’s case, but supplemented through biomass.  How sustainable is this?  A question we asked quite a lot on this tour.  Also, the economics behind district heating require a reasonably high heat demand, so it’s difficult to see how this interacts well with reducing consumption of heat, particularly with high temperature heat networks where very little heat would be required for efficient buildings.  

In response to the high temperature question, discussions after the workshop included whether the City of Lille could consider using Planet Soar’s solar water solution which can generate 160-degree heat, as well as being manufactured locally and with mostly recycled materials, if the city can find some space to build this – perhaps multi-storey car parks with roofs which could be repurposed?  The connection was made through our tour, so watch this space!

We also asked ourselves what are the other ways we could expand district heating?  Similar to the D2 grids project, mapping and planning for the best localised sources seem a priority.  One of our delegates, Dave Pearson from Star Refrigeration, shared ideas from the Queens Quay project where they have installed heat pumps into the Clyde Estuary, with the ability to heat lots of old, big buildings using large volumes of heat at 80 degrees, using only water and green electricity in an efficient way – perhaps the focus for the next study tour?  

Secondary loops which use cooler return temperatures could also be a way of delivering lower temperatures onto existing high temperature networks, to make them more suited to better insulated homes.  In my previous role we piloted this in Nottingham, but Matt Wood shared over beer that he’d seen this approach working in Copenhagen, and that seems like a more exciting place for another study visit (and they’ve done a few more heat networks!)

Mustbe0 retrofit project in Halluin, France

Clarity on net zero strategy on an area basis is needed – Local Authorities can be tasked with setting the strategy on a neighbourhood basis (but they may need support to do this).

The importance of area-based planning came across loud and clear throughout the study tour, both in the regional plans and actions in Lille and NW Europe, and in NL a requirement for all local authorities to have a plan showing which neighbourhoods will come off gas / have high levels of insulation / have district heating. The Dutch Local Authorities were provided with some capacity and capability where needed to ensure these plans were delivered.  This plan enables all parties, including the building occupiers and owners, as well as the energy and distribution companies (who may need to strengthen the grid or remove the network) to understand the strategic plans and then how and when they need to adapt to these.  It also allows builders and technology suppliers to align supply to meet the demand.

Local Authorities or big portfolio holders with strategic plans are key to a lot of this. Sebastien explained the domino effect, where you can’t do everything at once, so you need to start with some big things which will have a domino effect. This is why Energiesprong teams have been working with social housing organisations such as Vilogia in France, to launch our net zero homes movement. That doesn’t mean private owners or renters aren’t important, but we have to start somewhere, and scale and size of programme and long-term market certainty are important to get the ball rolling, or the dominoes falling!

Manufacturers such as BuildUp, who we visited on Day 2, have joined the retrofit revolution because they recognise the scale of the challenge and therefore the opportunity.  We hear the same from UK partners, that the promise of scale is important to kick start the product development.  Beattie Passive joined us on the tour and we talked about the challenges with offsite construction and manufacturing, and how to scale.  Fortunately, both Beattie Passive and BuildUp have models which are currently sufficiently flexible to scale down when needed as well as up, which helps ensure they are sustainable. Sustainable growth for manufacturers was a bit of a theme due to the enormously sad news about Factory Zero filing for bankruptcy two days before we were due to visit.

Tour of the BuildUp factory in Belgium

Large programmes of work which are continuous and create smooth demand are essential, but the pilots and smaller projects are also necessary for the learning.  We can’t afford for mistakes to be repeated on big programmes, so solutions and processes and technologies must be piloted and prototyped before they are rolled out.

Bernard Waselynck showed us a school in Raismes, which is the first demonstration of a net zero retrofit to a school in France.  This has been a challenging project with lots of learning.  Inspired by the lessons from the City of Raismes, Nadia Bellal from the City of Lille told us how they are taking a bold step to retrofit six schools using the Energiesprong approach, prioritising offsite construction so works can be completed in the three-month summer holidays.

Retrofitting and renovating our schools is essential to make the learning environment better.  Ron Beattie is on a mission to tackle this in the UK.  We heard how Glasgow are building new schools on playing fields, then moving kids across, then knocking down the old one to make new playing fields.  A neat solution, but what about the embodied carbon?  To make school retrofits work for industry and suppliers as well as the school, (everyone loves a holiday but not for 9 months), Sebastien pointed out that perhaps this three-month school retrofit could be blended as a rolling programme with housing, such as that owned by Vilogia in North-West France.  Programming is important for efficiency and cost reduction so peaks of three months then lots of downtime are hard to manage.  BuildUp have been procured to deliver the City of Lille’s school programme and we saw a photo of their mock-up panel fitting perfectly during our inspiring factory tour, with lessons learned from their first projects feeding into ensuring the scans are accurate.

BuildUp have also recently completed a couple of projects with Vilogia.  Vilogia are one of the biggest housing providers in France, and as well as kindly showing us their MUSTBE0 project in Roubaix, Julien Holgard came to tell us about their decarbonisation strategy, and how data and analysis is helping them understand how enormous the challenge of taking gas out of their 80,000 homes is. Flexibility and pragmatism are key to them achieving this and they are developing a range of approaches depending on how well homes perform and where they are, for example whether they are near to district heating; again, planning ahead and long-term programmes came through as a priority for both building owners and industry partners.  

Vilogia Mustbe0 project in Roubaix, France

Vilogia are segmenting their building types and putting large (600) home projects to the market so they can start to see some cost reductions achieved through scale.  During our workshop in Hertogenbosch, Daniël Duijvestijn presented how Endule are taking a very similar approach with the Dutch landlords they work with. They carry out a portfolio analysis, and then they package up archetypes which need the same solution so that landlords can put a 10-year programme together for tender, which will mean suppliers can learn, replicate, improve and repeat, making works happen more efficiently and quickly.  

Endule are even looking to take this further by combining demand across landlords and supporting the procurement and delivery; this is one of the principles of the RA-HIP Innovation Partnership which we set up with partners Greater London Authority (GLA) and Turner & Townsend to create that long term pipeline and commitment, but with the prototyping and piloting phases too, all of which industry say is essential.  It struck me that the model Daniel talked about, having regional programme delivery offices, is not that big a step from what we are delivering with the GLA and following conversations with Anees Mank from Greater Manchester Combined Authority, their model, and also the regional energy hubs.

Some of the site visits showed us how hard deep retrofit is, and how much the learning is needed.  The tolerance of scans for manufacture must be accurate – buildings aren’t all square boxes, so it’s important to get this right.  It was also interesting to see how different strategies are being taken on projects in terms of thermal mass, air tightness, heating.  Monitoring data needs to be gathered and shared to show how well these approaches work for different building types.  With the UK not able to bid for EU collaboration funding anymore, we must ensure we keep our routes for sharing knowledge open with our European neighbours.

Clarity of strategy and coherence of policies with clear targets, supportive finance, and non-biased information are essential

Eveline Molier shared a comprehensive document with us in advance and then came to Hertogenbosch to tell us about the Dutch policies relating to decarbonisation of housing, which include the stick; a regulation for landlords so they can’t rent lower performance homes in six years, and the carrot; an Energy Performance Fee (EPV), which enables landlords to replace all or part of a tenant’s energy bill with a service charge. These sit within a broader strategic plan to insulate 2.5m homes, install 1m hybrid heat pumps and install district heating to hundreds of thousands of homes.

Eveline Molier presenting the EPV and Dongen site visit in the Netherlands

The EPV, which launched in 2016, was only available for net zero homes previously (retrofit and new build), but in Eveline’s revamp, she has expanded this so that landlords delivering slightly lower performance homes can still benefit.  She hopes this will see a rapid expansion of activity to realise more than the 10,000 homes which have previously been improved to net zero using this financing policy.  Indeed, the chair of the Dutch National Tenant Organisation said this policy was the only way landlords would improve the quality and performance of their homes, so he was very supportive of the expansion and continuation.

The EPV in the NL lasts indefinitely once applied to homes. This is possible in NL because they gained agreement to change policy, which enables the EPV to be governed as though it were tenant law, but without forming part of the tenant’s rent which would have other consequences.  In the UK, the Energiesprong team has been working with landlord partners on implementing a comfort plan, but without regulatory change this is currently sitting as a consumer agreement, which means all parties are a bit less well protected, and the value of the agreement is lower and it runs for a shorter time.  Policy change could include something similar to enable the Comfort Plan / EPV, or in the UK perhaps instead a revisit of the Green Deal mechanism, but with verified or guaranteed performance, minimum standards, and very low interest rates.

Dutch landlords have recently negotiated with the NL Government, so they have a break from paying the ‘landlord levy’ effectively a tax. This has given them collectively a windfall of 5bn Euros which they have to use on sustainability, new build, or helping their tenants with affordability.  But this means they cannot access any grants for insulation or home-improvement, so finance becomes more important. Finance is at a low (subsidised) interest rate though.

Finance and funding are both needed for a different range of users and projects, and we heard how positive steps are being taken, but more is needed

While Eveline focussed mostly on policies around social housing (that domino effect again) private homes are not left behind in the NL. There is a clear grant incentive of 30% of the cost for two or more insulation measures, supported by a national heating loan fund which offers 0% loans, and also grant incentives for hybrid heat pumps. Hybrid heating was another source of interesting discussion during the trip – are they a useful way to reduce carbon emissions and gas use for the next ten years while more homes are insulated, or is heat pump technology already good enough to be efficient in most homes?  The NL has committed to hybrid heat pumps at scale, but recent advances in tech suggest heat pumps (particularly with heat storage such as Sunamp), can probably work in most places.  Perhaps there is something about the area-based strategy for timing of gas removal though, where hybrid heat pumps help ensure viability of the grid until it is removed, and they do save 30% emissions, so are a step towards carbon reduction goals.

In Lille, Vilogia shared how they borrowed to fund retrofit – 80% borrowing over a long term, with a low interest rate.  This is possible in the UK already, but perhaps not as common.  Similar to Dutch landlords, the French are borrowing and paying back over a period of time based on the total cost of ownership of the home. They don’t have right to buy to contend with, which is a significant barrier to this type of long-term borrowing model being used to retrofit social housing in the UK.

More investment is needed into the technologies which help decarbonise buildings.  Sebastien pointed out that the balance of global investment into climate tech ventures is really poorly matched with climate impact. Mobility and transport cause 16% of impact, but have 61% of the investment, whereas buildings are 21% of the impact but just 4% of the investment.  

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Over dinner I had discussions with start-up and innovative founders who told me how hard it was to launch a business, with some of them not paying themselves a proper wage for months.  This financial pressure and challenge demonstrate how important incubators and Innovate UK funding streams are to create the companies and solutions of the future. The inspiring Chief Exec of BuildUp, Hélène de Troostembergh, talked about needing optimism and determination to work in this climate fight – I think we had a cohort with lots of this, along with enthusiasm and energy!  

Information and choice are both critical for engaging all tenures

The Netherlands has a really helpful website called Improve your home, which gives very clear information about options, trigger points, costs, and a link to a website which compiles all the local authority neighbourhood plans into one place, so home or building owners can understand the strategic plans for their area, the technical solutions which they can choose from for their homes, and how they can fund the works, all from a trusted source.  

Some of our UK cohort were developing solutions in this space for the UK market, but it is important to have a point of truth to rely on, rather than manufacturers’ own claims.  The more information for customers can be verified with real world data, the more trust can be built.

Energiesprong project in Dongen, the Netherlands - heat pumps integrated into the roof and a happy tenant

We need more development of new materials.  Bio-materials and embodied carbon are much higher up the agenda in France and NL already – we have some catching up to do!

All of the speakers in Lille talked about the need for bio-based materials and low embodied carbon.  The Notre Logis scheme in Halluin was not demolished and instead refurbished, primarily because of the embodied carbon. We heard about solutions which recycled solar panels and phase change material from PLUSS Advanced Technologies (who kindly came to join us in Hertogenbosch at very short notice), which could be re-used and recycled. At our BuildUp site visit the team talked about how bio-based materials had to be fire-proofed with lots of extra materials at junctions and spray of the insulation, and through the NL policy there was a clear commitment to use bio or recycled materials.  Some of our cohort such as Jamie Keats from Wrapt Homes and Max Bloomfield from VundaHaus are involved in developing new insulation solutions so it’s helpful to learn about what is needed for the market outside the UK (and of course internally once the UK inevitably catches up with this important issue).

I sadly had to leave before the last day’s activities, but the sun was shining for the last two site visits, one to an Ecovillage and a Dutch Energiesprong project in Dongen which were demonstrating the policies we heard about in action, in particular with bio or recycled materials and simple approaches to heat storage in the Ecovillage, and integrated heat pumps on the roof in Dongen which Nancy Jonsson from Monodraught was particularly interested to see, along with happy tenants who were paying the EPV instead of their energy bill.  

Boekel Ecovillage

With our cohort of participants invited from Innovate UK’s Net Zero Heat and Net Zero Living programme, companies included innovators, tech developers, solution developers, national government and regional authorities. Hopefully the connections and learnings will catalyse into something great for the UK Net Zero heat transition!  Thanks to Mat Colmer for instigating and to Ele George and the rest of our teams from Energiesprong UK, Bureau Door, Greenflex and Endule for organising, and of course thanks to all the people who gave us their time for factory visits or talks, and all those who attended.  

You have inspired us!  Stay determined and optimistic!