What is the magic recipe for quality but resource-wise public services? 

Local representatives share their thoughts on the structural reduction of energy demand in public buildings


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Publication date

November 4, 2022

At an event organized by Energy Cities and Grenoble Alpes Metropolis on 18 October, as part of our Hubs Fossil-free cities and Fair economies’ programmes, local representatives shared their views and insights on reducing the energy demand and what it means for grid planning.  

The concept of sufficiency questions the municipalities on the way their public services are conceived and offered to their inhabitants. Sufficiency can be defined as a set of policies and measures aiming at structurally reducing and avoiding the energy, materials, land, and water demand while delivering well-being for all within planetary boundaries.  

Re-thinking the way we use buildings: the key to reduce energy consumption 

It is time to ask the right questions and address basic needs to reduce energy consumption in buildings, especially in municipal properties. This is what the city of Lyon is doing by deciding to set a reference temperature of 18°C in all buildings owned by the city, including the ones that are managed by third-party actors, like theatres. Sylvain Godinot, deputy mayor of Lyon in charge of ecological transition and property assets, stressed that it is essential to show that the same effort is asked from everyone. Setting the reference temperature one degree below what is required by French law (19°C) will allow public services to be kept open while mitigating the impacts of very high energy prices on the municipal budget. However, the city of Lyon plans some exceptions, like in kindergartens or libraries to adapt to the needs of these audiences and to provide a heated area for children and students if heating cannot be afforded in their homes.  

Xavier Figari, who works at the local energy agency of the Grenoble area to support municipalities in developing their sufficiency plans, confirmed that public authorities should focus on the temperature felt by users, and decrease it as much as possible while ensuring comfort. It requires raising awareness of citizens and municipal staff on adapting their dressing habits accordingly to their activities when using public facilities. Another measure he advises is to gather the activities of local associations on the same days to avoid heating the buildings every day.  

The city of Lyon is considering its energy needs to the extent of questioning the conditions of conservation of works in the city museums: do all artwork need to have a constant 19°C temperature and a 55% hygrometry level all year long for safe preservation? Substantial energy gains could be achieved via the differentiation of the preservation conditions. 

The necessary metamorphosis of public authorities: working cross-departments to track consumption  

In response to the energy crisis, which is putting a strain on municipal budgets, there is a new dynamic in several European cities, such as Lyon, of cross-municipal-department work within local administrations to reduce energy consumption. 

Indeed, the departments in charge of sectorial policies (like sport and culture) are most of the time not in charge of paying their energy bills, which is the responsibility of the public properties department. This situation prevents the managers of each department from knowing exactly the energy costs of their activities. To face the energy crisis, transversal task-forces are set up to work collectively on changing habits and reducing energy consumption. This could lead to transfer the properties management back to the respective departments and the breaking down of silos around energy policies.  

Paradigm shift: investing in Human Resources to implement local sufficiency measures 

According to Sylvain Godinot, it is wrong to say that sufficiency costs nothing (because it does not require investment): it is a burden on the operating budget as it requires investment in human resources.  

Indeed, additional staff will be required to adapt the usage of buildings, optimise technical systems (like changing setting temperatures), inform users on appropriate behaviours, and achieve a more flexible and real-time management of the premises. In addition, optimising technical infrastructures like heating systems can reveal other defaults in the building envelops (leakages, defaulting windows…). Therefore, it accelerates the need for refurbishment of the municipal properties, and to hire new municipal staff to drive the process as illustrated in the quantified studies by Energy Cities for Europe and I4CE for France.   

However, this “cost” of sufficiency measures is an investment: a 10% to 15% return of investment can be expected from hiring someone to better manage public buildings. Pressured by austerity measures from national governments, municipalities are sometimes reluctant to hire new staff. In the long term, continuing in this way would be a serious mistake for public finances. This, therefore, requires a paradigm shift in the way we think about public finance and “immaterial” investments.