Britain faces a major challenge to improve home energy efficiency

Latest Office for National Statistics data shows there has been little improvement in home energy efficiency in recent years, writes Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, on the Business Green website.


Energy efficiency statistics lay bare the scale of draughty homes 

Not far off half the energy the UK consumes each year is used in buildings. Two-thirds of that consumption happens in our homes. But the latest official statistics underscore the scale of draughty, inefficient homes and buildings which urgently need attention to drive down greenhouse gas emissions.

Back in 2008 the law changed so that whenever occupancy of any building alters an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) must be provided to the new occupant, whether a purchaser or tenant. The EPC grades houses from ‘A’ as the best and cheapest to run, right down to ‘G’ as the worst and most expensive – or least energy efficient. Within these categories, too, are more precise numerical markings, going all the way up to 100.

When the government’s Clean Growth Strategy was launched almost exactly three years ago, the then-Energy and Clean Growth Minister Clare O’Neill -née Perry -announced on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that “all housing stock should be up to at least Band C by 2035”. Last year, the average EPC rating issued for an existing house was – only just – band D.

Now that half of homes in England and Wales have acquired an EPC, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has published its first ever detailed analysis of EPC data. This provides what is probably the largest in-depth snapshot of the energy efficient state of our housing stock

No improvements in recent years 

Unsurprisingly, new homes tend to be far more efficient than older homes, producing less than half the carbon dioxide emissions and half the energy costs. Those built over the last 40 years have all been built to minimum building regulation ‘Part L’ standards for the conservation of fuel and power. Gradually these standards have been tightened, each time to make any new homes that little bit more energy efficient.

The most recent change took place eight years ago. Hence the sad revelation that the ONS median energy efficiency rating bands for both types of homes – new and second-hand – have not improved at all in recent years.

Surprisingly, as many as 14 local authorities seem to have managed the unlikely feat of having lower median energy efficiency scores for new flats, than they do for existing ones in their locality. Harlow in Essex had the biggest energy efficiency score difference between new flats (a derisory 61, EPC band ‘D’), and existing flats (71, band ‘C’).

During 2019 there were also big differences between the standards required for new flats. Cambridge had the highest median energy efficiency score for new flats, with 89 (EPC band ‘B’), and North Lincolnshire the lowest, with an astonishingly poor 59.5 (band ‘D’).

Social rented homes better than private rentals 

On average in both England and Wales, socially rented flats and houses with an EPC are rated more energy efficient than privately rented flats and houses respectively.

There is no restriction upon sales of even the worst gas-guzzling homes. But it is now illegal to let out homes with an ‘F’ or ‘G’ rating, and government is now consulting on tightening that requirement.

There remain major concerns regarding the large numbers of buildings still being rented out without any EPC, estimated still to be approaching half of those in the private rented sector. Anecdotally, it is thought that such law-breaking accommodation is likely to be fairly sub-standard.

Some 43 per cent of privately rented homes are overseen by a professional letting agent. Fortunately, agents are now mandated by law to ensure that EPCs are available.

Heat pumps are scarce 

Almost 80 per cent of homes with an EPC use mains gas to power central heating. Around 11 per cent have electric heating. Around eight per cent have solid fuel or oil heating.

Just 0.8 per cent of homes currently occupied have a heat pump of any description. And in 2019 the tiny number of new homes where a heat pump was installed halved in Wales, and dropped by one-third in England.

Last year just 30,000 heat pumps were installed in Britain. In contrast, around 1.6 million condensing gas boilers were put in.

Given the Committee on Climate Change reckon that air source and ground source heat pumps in well-insulated homes are the best bet for our homes in a net zero future, there remains a major job to be undertaken to realise such ambitions in the 26 million homes currently inefficiently heated in other ways and by other sources.

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