Fabric-first says the Government - but is it really committed to environmental change?
Remember those annoying protesters who have been making people late for work over the last couple of months? Well, against all the odds, it seems the Government has been listening to their demands all along.
The new Heat and Buildings Strategy published better-late-than-never on 19 October, sets out clearly that taking a ‘fabric-first’ approach will be central to the drive to zero-carbon buildings. What this means for homeowners is that in future we will all be encouraged – and hopefully incentivised – to install plenty of insulation to walls, floors and attic spaces, draught-proof our homes and ensure that windows are at least double and preferably triple-glazed.
This is because the new generation of ground and air heat pumps that are one of the preferred options to replace our old gas-guzzling boilers, will only operate at maximum efficiency in a warmer environment than existing central heating systems need. If we don’t turn our attention to retrofitting energy efficiency measures in our draughty old housing stock first, these new, expensive heat pumps will be a waste of money.
Who will be paying for all this is unclear. The Construction Leadership Council and the Federation of Master Builders are calling for a national retrofit programme which they estimate will come with a bill of more than £500bn. As the government wrestles with post-pandemic economics, it is anybody’s guess whether or not they will take this on board.
And as for the newly announced £5000 grant to help homeowners fund new heating systems, let’s hope the Government has learned some lessons from the disastrous Green Homes Grant. As the market stands now, there are not enough skilled people to fit heat pumps – and nor is there much enthusiasm from the public for new technology that requires complex retrofitting.
The high cost of these systems, which can be anything up to £18,000, is expected to fall as greater volumes of new installations are produced over time. So will manufacturers now be incentivised to develop systems at a price we can afford and which can be retrofitted without too much hassle? This has not been a particularly successful strategy for encouraging uptake of solar panels, with the loans taken out by homeowners now the latest target of no-win, no-fee claims companies. We need to do better.
New builds and larger homes with plenty of outside space are the easiest part of the equation. It’s our older, terraced housing stock and high rise buildings that will likely pose the biggest challenge – at least as far as heat pumps are concerned. All homes are different, with different levels of insulation and different needs. As one commentator said this week, the most effective solution if the Government is genuinely committed to environmental change would be to assess homes on a case-by-case basis and give grants accordingly.
There is also an argument to be made for incentivising gas companies to develop greener alternatives to natural gas. That way millions of boilers wouldn’t necessarily end up on the scrap heap. Heating systems fuelled by green electricity and hydrogen may also end up being part of the mix. There is still too much uncertainty to see a clear way forward for homeowners wrestling with green alternatives to their current energy supply - and a long way to go if this initiative is to do more than pay lip service to the green agenda.
Author : Maryanne Bowring
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