The sharp rise in energy prices this winter has added to the cost of living struggle that many households were already facing across the UK. Our housing is particularly old and thermally inefficient, and the levels of fuel poverty are on the rise again.
At the same time, we are painfully aware of the impact of energy use on the environment, and the urgency of action on climate change, confirmed yet again by the most recent report from Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The window of opportunity to take effective action is ‘brief and rapidly closing’.
The window is still there – for now – and we do have solutions. We know that households can be protected from future energy price shocks as well as making a significant contribution to mitigating climate change by making homes thermally efficient, and providing residual energy needs with renewable energy. All new homes must be built to the most exacting low carbon standards, but we also need to tackle the much bigger challenge of the existing housing stock, in the owner occupied as well as rented sectors.
This is not easy, but it has to be faced, and because it’s difficult, it takes time and we can’t keep putting it off. The problem is how to make this happen in practice, and to do so in a way that avoids creating new hardship. Decisions and investment have to be made by millions of individual homeowners. Homeowners are anxious about the cost of the work, the disruption, the risk of buying unfamiliar new technologies, and the impact on house values. Most governments have so far placed this firmly in the ‘too difficult’ box, and been afraid to open it, not least because of the potential backlash from voters. This makes it particularly striking that Scotland is tackling the problem head on, with a pioneering approach set out in their Heat in Buildings Strategy published last October.
There are many reasons for why this is so very challenging. For years the message has been about energy efficiency being a wise investment, saving on bills against the cost of the measures. But we are not talking any more just about those ‘quick payback’ measures, which are easy to install, not disruptive, and swiftly repay the costs of the work. Loft and cavity wall insulation, low energy lighting and efficient gas boilers are the norm now in Scotland, and have been supported by a range of grants and incentives for many years. We now have to go much further, moving away from fossil fuels completely – and this means doing the more expensive and disruptive stuff too, by insulating as much of the external envelope as possible, installing solar (thermal and PV) wherever suitable, and providing residual heat and hot water needs largely through low carbon heat networks and electric heat pumps. This shift to electric heating goes hand in hand with continued progress on decarbonising the electricity supply.
The Heat in Buildings Strategy sets the scene for implementing energy efficiency regulations for owner-occupied homes. It is being followed by work to develop the detail, and a series of public consultations. The Existing Homes Alliance Scotland have commissioned a new report, published this month: Owning the Future: A framework of regulations for decarbonising owner-occupied homes in Scotland, which sets out recommendations for how this could be achieved in practice – setting out a framework which includes setting a minimum fabric energy efficiency standard, triggered by change of ownership and major works on the home, together with a parallel programme to phase out fossil fuel boilers. The latter might be achieved by a ban on new or replacement fossil fuel boilers after a specified date. It is of course noted that the fabric work needs to come first as far as possible, so that the design of heating system is adapted to the new lower heat demand. This is also a safeguard against higher bills for those moving from mains gas for heating (81% of Scottish homes), which to date in the UK has not carried the additional levies applied to electricity.
To achieve this huge challenge requires a robust enabling framework, including advice and support through the retrofit process, finance tailored to the needs of different households, and effective quality control. It will also require a reform of the current Energy Performance Certificate, to provide a rating which reflects fabric energy efficiency specifically (rather than the current running cost basis used in the UK), and to reduce the assumptions and simplifications which limit accuracy. These EPCs would ideally form part of a medium to long term renovation plan, showing how a home can be retrofitted to be zero carbon, and the steps towards that goal. Ideally this would in turn be part of digital building logbook, which could enable access at the right data level to homeowners, prospective buyers and relevant operatives, while also enabling progress to be monitored at stock level across the country.
Scotland faces some additional challenges, such as how to implement these regulations in the historic tenements that are a feature of Scottish cities – with complicated arrangements for ownership and responsibility for different parts of the building, to add to the need to find solutions for multi-owner buildings. Another issue is the limits to the powers of the Scottish Government to take action that affects markets internal to the UK.
None of this is rocket science. It is however, politically and socially sensitive. But it is also necessary if we are to face up to the challenge of climate change, and to find a long term solution to fuel poverty. Congratulations to the Scottish Government for putting this pioneering strategy out into the public realm, and starting the detailed conversation about how it can be done.
About the author: Dr Catrin Maby is an independent researcher, based in South Wales.
The Existing Homes Alliance is a coalition of housing, environmental, fuel poverty, consumer and industry organisations that believes Scotland’s existing homes must be transformed to help tackle fuel poverty and climate change.
‘Owning the Future’ was written for the Existing Homes Alliance by Catrin Maby together with Louise Sunderland of the Regulatory Assistance Project.