UK’s new Heat and Buildings strategy leaves energy efficiency in the dark

Britain’s new Heat and Buildings strategy has finally seen the light of day. But energy efficiency has been left in the dark once again as the spotlight falls on the supply of heat. Andrew Warren, chairman of the British Energy Efficiency Federation, discusses the issue in a column in the November/December issue of ENERGY IN BUILDINGS & INDUSTRY.


Why has the Government ignored the ‘first fuel’ once again?

The UK Government’s long promised Heat and Buildings strategy finally emerged just before the Glasgow COP 26 event. Over two years in gestation, the launch focussed entirely upon the declared “confirmed ambition” to eliminate new fossil fuel boilers from the marketplace within 14 years.

The official press release for the strategy is entitled ,optimistically, “Plan to drive down the cost of clean heat.” It includes lengthy quotations of enthusiasm from the Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, and from eight different business leaders anticipating growth and profits from its implementation. Plus most unusually a very upbeat statement ascribed to Prime Minister Johnson, who even followed up with a further paeon of praise in the Sun newspaper.

The established mantra of “fabric first” to improve buildings has disappeared.. The three-page press release contained absolutely no references to anything to do with the fabric- no references at all to windows,  doors, roofs, walls, lighting, appliances, even to the word “insulation”.

The focus is so much on fuels rather than building fabric that I feel the strategy is wrongly named. The conjunction needs to be substituted by a preposition.. Essentially, it is a “heat IN buildings” rather than a “heat AND buildings” strategy.

The emphasis comes down firmly in favour of electric heat pumps, subject to “expected “cost declines. The press release leads with “Government sets out plan to drive down the cost of low carbon heating technologies like heat pumps, working with industry to ensure that in future they are no more expensive to buy and run for consumers as (sic) fossil fuel boilers.”

But even the centrepiece grant scheme is pretty half hearted. Consider. There were 30,000 heat pumps installed during 2019. The fund announced for the new strategy can only provide a part payment for, yes, 30,000 heat pumps to be installed each year during the next three financial years.

Another way of expressing the “largesse” is that the £5000 per home on offer from April 2022 to install heat pumps is identical to the money available for installing heat pumps available from October 2020 to March 2021 under the Green Homes Grant scheme.

The difference is that the total budget available for the GHG scheme was due to be £1.8bn over 18 months. . Rather than the £450m over three years now being offered.  And there will be NO funds to help install any heat pumps between April 2021 and March 31 2022.

At present, the capital cost difference between condensing gas boilers- the only kind now installed, rather than the “beloved combi” boilers cited by Johnson in his Sun article – and heat pumps is at least 4:1. The official reassurance line is that all technologies reduce in price as their marketplace grows in size. Just look at off shore wind electricity.

There is one big difference. The UK was amongst the first countries in the world to adopt offshore wind power stations. In contrast, the worldwide market for heat pumps is already almost 20 million, p.a. of which just 30,000 are installed in the UK. Even if Johnson’s official target of a 20-fold increase in the size of the British marketplace , the cost of each installation will only marginally decrease in consequence.Certainly nothing to approach removing that 4:1 differential.

Since the overnight demise of the Green Homes Grant scheme last March, with 80% of its initial budget left unspent,  I have lost count of the number of independent studies that have set out blueprints of how important it is to improve the fabric  energy performance of the nation’s buildings .These point to ever widening  policy and funding  gaps   They also detail how, despite having a far more energy efficient building stock than the UK, many other European nations are injected billions into similar schemes designed to  “build back better” after Covid 19.

Tucked away in the Review, there is a detailed colourful chart explaining the breakdown of potential emissions savings from the heating of UK buildings during this decade. It makes plain that “measures to improve thermal performance” should be delivering well over twice as many savings as heat pumps.

There is no substantive fabric-related announcement easily identifiable in the 202-page document .Instead the strategy mainly reiterates pre-existing policies. There is some welcome additional funding for local authority programmes, like the home upgrade grant concentrating upon off-gas network low-income homes, and for the social housing decarbonisation fund. There is reiteration of commitments to achieve higher energy performance certificates, particularly in rental properties both residential – especially in low-income households – and commercial(the latter seeking minimum B ratings). Following consultation this spring, there is now a formal proposal to “invite” mortgage lenders to set target for mortgage spending based on EPC standards.

But these welcome individual programmes do not a strategy make. The last government strategy for demand management is nine years old. A new one is long overdue.

A few days before, the government published its electricity projections to 2035. It must be the first time in well over thirty years that any U.K. Government has issued a power system plan of such magnitude, without making any reference at all to the benefits of improving efficiency in generation or in usage. Frankly I cannot recall any other comparable Government elsewhere in the world so overtly and comprehensively ignoring the demand side of the energy marketplace.

I really had thought that the “energy efficiency first” policy mantra, adopted by the International Energy Agency,  and by the EU even whilst the UK was a member, meant that the days of considering energy policy to be exclusively about supply sources, had disappeared . Obviously I was wrong.  Neanderthals obviously still roam within the UK Business and Energy Department.

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