A new efficiency standards for central heating boilers has been set at European level, that could deliver energy savings equivalent to 10% of Europe’s energy consumption by 2020 and save millions on energy bills.

The standards will be enshrined in the Ecodesign Directive and cover minimum requirements for boilers and water heaters. There will be a new labelling system that will make transparent their lifetime energy savings potential so they may be easily compared.

According to an Ecofys study, the correct implementation of the Ecodesign Directive would save 400 million tones of CO2 emissions a year, a figure “comparable to the impact on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions expected of the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS),” while being far cheaper to implement.

Gas and oil-fired central heating boilers, which make up over 80% of the market, account for 16% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions and 17% of the EU’s.

The new measures will see old boilers effectively phased out, and a new generation of more efficient condensing ones.

From 2015, condensing heaters will only get a maximum ‘A’ ranking on a new energy performance label that runs on a scale from ‘G’ to ‘A double+’.

In 2019, a new ‘A triple+’ category will be introduced for super-efficient boilers, such as heat pumps and, from this point on, only renewable and co-generation technologies will qualify for the ‘A+’ label that enables a green-coloured tab to be displayed.

Stéphane Arditi, senior policy officer for the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), said: "Europe’s energy efficiency targets have received a huge boost". He said the standards "will have a dramatic impact on cutting our carbon emissions and save Europe millions of euros on energy bills.”

According to the EEB, the measures will account for 15% of the EU's 2020 goal of improving energy efficiency by 20%, compared to 2005.

Altogether, the Ecodesign Directive will account for up to half of the 2020 goal. Putting it in perspective, this represents one tenth of the EU’s entire primary energy use.

Green groups have welcomed the setting of this standard. Arianna Vitali Roscini, WWF’s energy conservation policy officer called it “one of the efficiency measures that really deliver energy consumption reductions".

Dana Popp, a spokeswoman for the Association of the European Heating Industry (EHI), did voice concerns, however, about the emissions level requirements for gas-fired space and water heating appliances set in the rules. “For gas water heaters, they have set the NOx [nitrogen oxide] requirements so low that industry fears they will no longer be suitable products on their own, because of the investment required.”

This is because she believes that it might trigger a shift to electric water heating that would, currently, increase CO2 emissions. However, this was dismissed by other experts.

Industry groups are reportedly also unhappy that condensing heaters will see their colour label change from green to yellow, while green groups are equally unhappy that condensing boilers are being labelled as green until at least 2019.

The resolution follows many years of haggling. Objections were repeatedly raised by Europe’s central heating industry, big German manufacturers and, at one point, the Energy Commissioner Günther Oettinger. Germany produces 60% of all Europe’s boilers, with Italy (20%) and Britain, France and the Netherlands (15%) making the rest.

The final text still needs to be passed by the European Parliament. The new standards will not come into force until 2015.

Environmentalists are saying that because of the directive’s long gestation period there should be a rapid implementation and review process.

Dustin Benton, a senior policy advisor to Green Alliance, holds that British consumers are buying less energy efficient appliances because of the recession. “There is a discrepancy between the projected savings from the Ecodesign Directive and what is actually happening,” he said.

“We need to move more swiftly on the regulatory front and also to provide incentives for energy efficient devices.”

Gas and oil-fired boilers retail for around €1,500-€3,000 and have an efficiency quotient of around 50%, while condensing boilers which retail at around €5,000 can reach have an efficiency level of at least 81%. With further heat recovery, costing £1,200, they can have an efficiency level of 97%.

Heat pumps can deliver energy savings of over 130%, although their price varies from as much as €20,000 to just €6,000 for the least efficient models, which still use less energy than the best-performing condensing boilers.

“We fear that the directive won’t have the desired impact of ensuring that only very efficient products are chosen by customers because economically speaking, some alternatives are far from affordable,” said Dana Popp.

To counteract the prospect that continued support for condensing boilers would entail locking the poor into high energy bills and fuel poverty for years to come, Ardetti has called for more schemes such as Britain's extremely popular boiler scrappage trade-in for old boilers, where people were paid for their old boilers when exchanged for more efficient ones.

Benton proposes adopting the American idea of ‘negawatts’, a feed-in tariff for consumers to encourage their use of low-carbon energy sources, which has been advocated in Britain by the Energy and Climate Change Committee, led by Tim Yeo.

“You can pay people between £10-£35 per avoided kilowatt hour of energy, which compares favourably to low carbon electricity generation,” he said.

Story: David Thorpe, News Editor