A Sea Change in China's Building Retrofit Market
China has 43 billion square meters of existing buildings—about 470 billion square feet. Mr. Yan, Deputy Department Chief of Social Development under the Ministry of Science and Technology (MoST), noted this in his opening address to 500 plus attendees at China’s Existing Building Retrofit Conference on June 5-6 in Beijing, marking the first time a Chinese official publicly acknowledged this reality . His department and the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development (MoHURD) spent 100 million RMB (about $14.6 million) over the past two years to support R&D on existing building retrofits, one of China’s key research projects in the 11th-Five-Year Plan involving almost all Chinese research institutes and universities on buildings. The conference in Beijing essentially served as a retreat for the project participants. I was invited to speak about U.S. energy policies on existing building retrofits.
Most of China’s existing buildings are inefficient. To achieve a 20 percent reduction of energy intensity in the building sector, China set a goal of retrofitting 150 million square meters of existing buildings in the “severe cold” and “cold” climate regions by the end of 2010. When the central government began to allocate retrofit responsibility among fifteen municipalities and provinces three years ago, almost all of them complained that the assignment would be too difficult to complete. However, in the past year, many provinces and municipalities have not only risen to their original challenge but have asked for support for even further retrofit projects. Mr. Wu, Department Chief of Science and Technology under MoHURD, explained at the conference that the change resulted from increasing requests from local residents who saw the benefit of energy retrofits—the top-down task turned to bottom-up market demand, a sea change.
The building energy retrofit market still faces many challenges. Heating energy consumed by the buildings in the “severe cold” and “cold” climate regions accounts for one fourth of total energy consumed by the building sector. One professor said a major problem is that many existing residential buildings are too leaky—the natural air exchange rate is ten times the maximum allowed under the building code. Another professor revealed in his presentation that residents in Harbin, a northern city, filed 20 million complaints on heating problems in 2009.
The cost-benefit ratio of building energy retrofits is another concern. The simple payback period for a typical residential energy retrofit project is typically between fifteen and twenty years, according to a keynote speaker, Mr. Lin, Deputy Head of China Academy of Building Research. However, he overlooked one fact: the Chinese residential electricity rate is heavily subsidized and only half the market price. He suggested residential building energy retrofits should combine functional improvement and building life extension; only comprehensive retrofits can be economically sustainable.
The conference summarized findings in the following ten research areas: existing building retrofit standards and codes; existing building inspection and key measurement technologies; key existing building safety retrofit technologies; key existing building function improvement technologies; key existing building equipment retrofit technologies; key existing building heating supply system retrofit technologies; historic building reuse and renovation; old urban residential buildings improvement; key existing building retrofit materials and construction equipment technologies; and; key comprehensive existing retrofit technologies.