The challenge of retrofitting millions of aging homes to battle global warming

A landmark climate report released this month by the United Nations predicted dire consequences for the world if more is not done to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. More than 100 countries including the U.S. have committed to a goal to become carbon neutral by the year 2050. One of the biggest challenges to meeting that goal is making homes energy neutral. Special Correspondent Willem Marx reports as part of our series Peril & Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    A landmark climate report released this month by the United Nations concluded the Earth is warming faster than previously thought. And scientists predicted dire consequences if more is not done to reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. The U.S. and more than 100 countries have committed to becoming carbon neutral by the year 2050. But one of the biggest challenges ahead is making homes more energy-efficient.

    That's because, according to the U.N. Report, residential buildings are the source of around one-fifth of all greenhouse gases emitted globally. Now, one group in Europe is trying out a way to retrofit older homes and buildings to make them energy neutral. NewsHour Weekend special correspondent Willem Marx reports from the Netherlands for our ongoing series: Peril and Promise: the Challenge of Climate Change.

  • Willem Marx:

    Anton and Joke Toone have called this apartment in the Dutch city of Den Haag home for the last 40 years. And not much changed until last summer when a whole new facade was added to their building with thick insulation—and triple glazed windows, making their apartment much warmer, they say, and energy-efficient. It's one of more than 6,000 homes that have gotten a new climate-friendly energy retrofit, based on ideas from a not-for-profit called Enerigesprong.

  • Ron van Erck:

    We always had in mind that buying a retrofit was as easy as buying a new kitchen at IKEA.

  • Willem Marx:

    Ron Van Erck is a co-founder of Energiesprong or Energy Jump. It works with regulators, banks and entrepreneurs to plan how best to retrofit millions of existing homes. Why? Because in order to meet a goal set by more than 100 countries to become carbon neutral by 2050, existing homes that produce about a fifth of all greenhouse gases have to be made much more energy-efficient.

  • Ron 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.

  • Willem Marx:

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

  • Ron van Erck:

    I wouldn't say never, but not within the time frame that we got left.

  • Willem Marx:

    Funded initially by the Dutch Government, Energiesprong's mission was to figure out how to industrialize energy efficiency. Part of that new standard is prefabrication and mass production. That's what is happening at this factory called RC Panels. Facades are produced at scale made of thick insulation covered by a thin layer of fire-resistant polyester. The outer layer can be made to look like bricks. The bricks are laid by robots that can place the 2,000 pieces needed for a typical panel in about 20 minutes.

  • Willem Marx:

    They're very bendy bricks.

  • Lianda Sjerps-Koomen:

    It's very bendy because it's only for aesthetics.

  • Willem Marx:

    You can kind of just break it in half.

    Lianda Sjerps-Koomen Yes. What does that mean when it's on the outside of a building? It stays this way. But the only advantage is if for ages to come you might want to demolish a building in about 50 years time and you can recycle it if you want to. And it means there is much less material impact on the environment as well.

  • Lianda Sjerps-Koomen:

    Here you can see the mounting system.

  • Willem Marx:

    Lianda Sjerps-Koomen brought us to a construction site where new facades were being attached to a complex of 300 apartments. The facades include new replacement doors and triple-glazed windows built right in to save time on site.

  • Lianda Sjerps-Koomen:

    They fit exactly.

  • Willem Marx:

    To the millimeter

  • Lianda Sjerps-Koomen:

    To the millimeter. Because if you don't the door just doesn't open. Because you have to have that same hole. It's tailor-made. Tailor-made but in a standardized process so that's the trick.

  • Willem Marx:

    Attaching one of the panels can be done in as little as 15 minutes.

  • Willem Marx:

    These men are preparing to hoist this huge facade up into the air and because there is a hook and anchor system on the back of it they will essentially attach it to this existing building and it becomes like an insulation jacket for the whole apartment complex. These are like huge blocks of lego essentially and they just attach and attach and attach and you can cover this huge apartment building in just a matter of hours. Another part of Energiesprongs retrofit strategy. making the switch to 100% electricity instead of gas to heat homes. That's where this comes in the heat pump. It's like a refrigerator in reverse. Taking heat from the outside air to warm a home. It uses very small amounts of electricity but works best in a moderate climate, with well-insulated structures.

  • Jasper van den Munckhof:

    So we call this the modern chimney. It's not a chimney, which gives smoke. But this is the heat pump providing you hot water and heating.

  • Willem Marx:

    The heat pump is part of a system produced by another Dutch startup, Factory Zero. It makes energy modules that incorporate a water boiler, solar panels and a heat pump all controlled by computer. Separately these elements would cost around $35,000, combined they are about $14,000. Cheaper, easier to install but still expensive. Jasper Van Den Munckhof, the company's owner, says the key is to convince people the energy savings will help pay for the upgrade.

  • Jasper van den Munckhof:

    It's the business model behind a net-zero home. Your energy bill goes to zero. Literally it goes to zero meaning that you have a lot of money to spend on actually retrofitting your home getting the right machinery etc.

  • Willem Marx:

    And thanks to lobbying by Energiesprong, the banks are in on the deal too.

  • Jasper van den Munckhof:

    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.

  • Willem Marx:

    The Energiesprong model is now being applied in about half a dozen other countries — including the United States.

  • Doreen Harris:

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

  • Willem Marx:

    Doreen Harris, head of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, told us about its new initiative called Retrofit New York.

  • Doreen Harris:

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

  •  Willem Marx:

    What would you say to people who say $30 million is a lot of money, but in the grand scheme of things, it's a drop in the ocean?

  • Doreen Harris:

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

  • Willem Marx:

    It's the first project: Casa Passiva in Brooklyn, where two multifamily buildings are being retrofitted. Interior pipes and radiators are being removed or sealed and the buildings covered with a new facade plus all-new heating and cooling systems. Harris says that more than 30 other building owners representing nearly 400,000 units of housing have signed a Retrofit New York pledge. The challenge here, 6 million buildings across New York state, which account for about 45% of the state's greenhouse emissions.

  • Doreen Harris:

    We will likely need to use both carrots and sticks to achieve the goals that we have established. Retrofit New York is a great example of a carrot. But it is true that as these solutions become more widely available we will also need to rely on more traditional approaches like codes and standards, like mandates to improve efficiency.

  • Willem Marx:

    Can this approach work if you don't have the finance guys, the government, the contractors, the homeowners essentially pulling in the same direction?

  • Ron van Erck:

    The answer is no. And what we see is that there are a lot of initiatives going to try to do something about energy efficiency in buildings and try to scale that. But what they all try to do is tweak one thing and work on solving one problem. But if you don't solve all the problems at the same time, you know, the puzzle never really fits. So what we tried to do is to understand which are all the pieces that we need to move and then talk to everybody that can move them and make sure that everybody knows that the other person also moves them. And then we go to that new reality at the same time. That's the philosophy behind what we tried to do here.

  • Willem Marx:

    Ron van Erck acknowledges the work ahead is daunting. So far these retrofit projects are mostly aimed at what's called "social" housing which is regulated and run by coops. And there are many styles of homes which make standardization difficult. The Netherlands needs to refurbish 7 million houses to meet its 2050 climate targets. And Van Erck says it's just not possible to do that in the old-fashioned way.

  • Ron Van Erck:

    Something needs to change and improve in the way we retrofit buildings if we want to get off fossil fuels. This is one of the better ideas that we've come across, at least so far.

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