Why we must act now to transform the UK’s inefficient homes
The release of the Energy Security Strategy brought welcome commitments to increase renewable energy generation from solar and wind power, however there was little support for improving the efficiency of the UK’s homes. With 21% of all carbon emissions coming from our homes, the lack of strategy to address this is concerning.
By taking steps to improve energy efficiency for example with insulation, householders can reduce how often they need to turn on the heating. With domestic heating making up around three quarters of all household carbon emissions, this is an important area to address on the path to net zero.
Our renewables manager Felicity Tolley joined Inside Housing’s Retrofit Challenge Summit to discuss how to overcome barriers to mass retrofitting requirements, specifically for social landlords. Here, Felicity shares her thoughts.
What’s the problem?
“As someone whose work centres around Scotland and the owner occupier market, the Retrofit Challenge Summit gave me fascinating insight into the wider retrofit market. 27 million homes in the UK must be retrofitted to improve energy efficiency and reduce reliance on fossil fuels by 2030, requiring a tenfold growth in rate of retrofit.
Tackling these 900,000 homes per year is a huge challenge, and as social housing makes up around a this summit is very timely. To address the problem ahead, we must follow the following roadmap.”
Safety must come first
The first step is how to “do no harm” when making changes to properties. The provision of suitable, safe housing must be prioritised before tackling fuel poverty or meeting net zero targets. This is especially relevant in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.
While net zero is embedded in long-term business plans, social landlords must find ways to address all three of these concerns – safe housing, fuel poverty and net zero – at once.
“Do no harm” includes making changes with residents instead of to residents. It’s important to convey messages in a way that makes sense to the audience, for example, by not using the word ‘retrofit’!
There is no silver bullet
If property improvements are to be effective and sustainable, the initial design must be considered and appropriate. This requires detailed understanding of the existing housing stock and the behaviours of the residents before and after intervention.
There’s innovation in technology too, which allows monitoring that can flag when a resident might be in crisis. This could be a situation, for example, when the temperature dips below a certain point and the resident has yet to put their heating on.
This kind of detailed monitoring can enable greater understanding of the impact of energy efficiency improvements, as well as potentially help landlords to safeguard their tenants (with their permission, of course).
We need to build capacity
There have been concerns that ineffective installations have led to some negative perceptions of energy efficiency and net zero among both landlords and residents. Skills development and scale up is vital to address these concerns; to include surveyors and designers as well as installers.
Standards such as PAS2035, which sets the standard for ‘whole house’ energy efficiency retrofit, will help to drive quality, but capacity building and are needed to ensure the quantity required in the supply chain.
Incentivising additional uptake of the relevant apprenticeship pathways could fill this gap or creating training programmes for individuals coming into the industry from other sectors with some transferable skills. We also need to see financial support alongside training programmes, to ensure reduced income does not prevent people from participating.
Heat pumps as a solution
Heat pumps are a key part of the solution, as well as an attractive and cost-effective option thanks to their efficiency. However, social landlords are nervous about making expensive improvements to properties while they have limited trust in the technologies and supply chain.
Pilots and shared learning can be helpful here, but we run the risk of over testing when we already know the way forward. Referring to heat pumps and other renewable technologies, such as heat networks, as “new” and “innovative” can add to the challenge here. These are established technologies that are simply rare in a UK heating market that has focused on gas boilers for so long.
Financing is perhaps the most significant hurdle to retrofitting the UK’s housing stock, due to the upfront cost of improvements. There are multiple options, ranging from government incentives such as the boiler upgrade scheme, to private finance and offloading the “worst” (least energy efficient) properties to subsidise improvements.
None of these options are without risk, but the key takeaway is that there is no single solution. Multiple sources of finance must be combined to provide the billions required to deliver net zero housing.
There is certainly a long way to go. It’s clear that many in the sector are keen to make a start on this target, while others are already further down the line. The social housing sector cannot afford any more inertia, particularly as the energy cost crisis adds further pressure on budgets. A stronger case needs to be made for action that will lower energy demand and bills for social tenants year on year, as well as contributing to 2050 targets.
This willingness to act requires a supportive policy environment combined with substantial funding to make these changes accessible to all. But we can provide safe, warm housing without a climate change cost. As one panellist put it, social housing providers must “understand their stock and make some decent decisions”, now.