Greener homes mean cheaper bills
With the cost of heating and powering the home higher than ever and increasing all the time, the issue of how savings can be made on fuel bills, however small, has never been more important.
An estimated 900,000 households across Scotland are estimated to be in fuel poverty – spending more than 10 per cent of their income on energy costs.
So, no surprise, then that energy efficiency is the new buzzword for housing and several new schemes which promise to reduce the heat being lost through homes are either under way or due to start, run by all-comers from the UK and Scottish Governments to the energy firms themselves.
Yet, while great strides have been made in tackling energy inefficiency, critics have told Holyrood we are still a long way off getting all homes across the country up to scratch.
Energy Action Scotland has estimated that to remove everyone from fuel poverty, would mean bringing all existing homes to a National Home Energy Rating of seven – which would cost in the region of £1.5bn.
However, the group adds that to truly reduce the amount of energy wasted in homes, through substandard insulation and poor heating systems, and meet climate change targets, would cost about £3bn.
The Scottish Government’s commitment to directly funded energy-efficiency schemes is currently £65m a year, but there is also extra support from its Warm Homes Fund and finance for energy advice, which it says brings the total up to nearer £200m.
But it still means a huge culture change in the way new homes are built, as well as a change in the approach to refitting the ones that already exist.
Alan Wallace, managing director of AppleGreen homes, which is building modern social housing promising to be 400 per cent efficient, says: “Energy costs are going to rise by 98 per cent in the next five years. In five years’ time the question when you buy a house will not be how much is the mortgage, it will be how much will the heating cost? Hot air is like water, it will find any gaps in the house to escape.” The Glasgow-based company is due to open a new demonstration home at Ravenscraig near Motherwell, which will show off exactly what the firm believes the homes of the future should look like.
The-steel framed units are assembled offsite, keeping down the amount of waste in the building process and making the units completely airtight. The flat roofs are fitted with solar PV panels to provide the heating – making energy “free” for the user throughout the day, although it still needs to draw power from the National Grid at night.
In addition, the homes are fitted with everything from energy-efficient lighting, underfloor heating, and air exhaust heat pumps which recycle hot air from bathrooms and kitchens and use it elsewhere in the home.
But while schemes like this bode well for the future – there is still the matter of making the homes Scotland already has, more efficient.
It is estimated that 80 per cent of homes people live in by 2050, will have already been built by 2016, which means that paying attention to making the current stock energy efficient is essential.
The Existing Homes Alliance is campaigning for exactly that.
Energy Action Scotland, which is a member of the alliance has warned that far more needs to be done at a government level. Its director Norman Kerr, says instead of planning new energy plants, whether they are producing renewable energy or using fossil fuels, more concentration should be put on reducing the drain on our energy resources.
And while many insulation schemes focus on the basics of improving efficiency, such as loft or cavity wall insulation, he said, one third of Scottish homes do not have cavities in walls to be filled in and one quarter do not have a loft – meaning more complex insulation methods may be needed.
He tells Holyrood: “Over the last few years, we have seen successive governments in Scotland, not just the current administration, looking more seriously at energy efficiency in housing. All of the schemes are welcome.
“But even with this we really still have a big question to ask. That for us is, what are we going to be doing in 10 to 15 years’ time? The Scottish Government is spending about £60m a year, we are talking about much more significant amounts.” Although the Scottish Government is introducing a National Retrofit Programme, he wants to see a Scotland-wide strategy drawn up over the next three to four years and targeting whole towns to address their energy-efficiency needs.
But increasing efficiency is not just about insulation. There has also been a concentration on trying to bring micro-renewables in, like solar power, to help heat the home and reduce the reliance on the National Grid.
Combined heat and power schemes and district heating systems have been set up with some success across Scotland, providing energy to high-density areas in Aberdeen, Clydebank and Maryhill in Glasgow.
And the Green Party wants to create an even wider-ranging energy-efficiency scheme which gives local councils the power to create their own energy companies, pouring back the profits from that into making homes more efficient.
Co-leader Patrick Harvie says: “For years we’ve slept-walked into this idea that energy is a cheap and abundant commodity and it always will be,” he said. “That’s no longer true and I don’t think it’s going to be true unless one of the science fiction technologies comes off the drawing board and becomes real.
“For the foreseeable future energy is going to be an expensive commodity, more expensive than it has been, there isn’t a cheap energy policy for any government to run.” He adds: “When we started raising this in the Scottish Parliament towards the end of session one it was pretty clear a piecemeal approach wasn’t going to cut the mustard.” The picture of just how much energy can be saved in homes has been best demonstrated by a project headed up by the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations. Its Carbon Portal Project saw thermal images taken of 10,000 properties across Scotland. A selection of the least efficient were given loft and cavity wall insulation and then the heat-sensitive cameras were brought back to show the tenants how much the energy loss had been reduced.
Housing Minister Keith Brown admits there is a “huge job of work to be done” and wants to see both regulation and incentives to encourage house owners, landlords and construction firms to make current and existing homes more energy efficient.
He says if mortgage lenders were able to give more consideration to how energy costs affect somebody’s ability to afford a home – which would mean more leniency for people buying a more efficient home – then the message might start to get across.
“There are a group of people who are interested in environmental issues and making sure that they live in an environmental and sustainable way,” he tells Holyrood.
“But there’s a much bigger chunk of people who will look at this in a financial way,” he adds.
“If they can picture the financial benefits that there is for them in having houses which have been adapted in this way, aside in addition to [the] environmental side of it, then I think we can attract a lot more people into doing that and seeing the merits of it.” Although he wants to see extended powers for the Scottish Government, he said a greater borrowing capacity, made possible care of the Scotland Act, will help free up funding for further measures. He said he was also keen to encourage further investment from elsewhere.
In addition, about £710m is being granted to local authorities for the next three years, with promises of greater rewards for environmental measures.
But the task of making energy costs in homes cheaper falls to both the UK and Scottish Governments.
Although there are less directly funded schemes from Westminster, the UK’s big project for tackling energy efficiency has been Green Deal, which will reduce the need for people to pay the upfront costs for complex and expensive measures like solid wall insulation. Rather than relying on direct cash grants for the work, the UK Government has replaced current projects like the Warm Front Scheme and the funding will come from the fuel bill.
While the energy usage will go down, the bill will not – and the saving created will be used to pay back the loan.
The UK Government, through the Department of Energy and Climate Change, has also set aside £190m, for social landlords to assist tenants in fuel poverty and its Energy Company Obligation (ECO), is aiming to fund improvements on homes.
In addition, the UK Treasury is also funding Renewable Heat Incentives, which give grants to homes not on the grid for high-cost energy savers including biomass boilers and air source heat pumps.
A DECC spokeswoman said the first 22 potential Green Deal providers had already signed up and it would be marketed to a wide range of companies
She said: “One of the biggest barriers to making improvements is the upfront costs.
“The new government-backed programme helps householders make energy-saving improvements to their home to keep it warm and cosy. At the same time they’ll reduce the amount of gas and electricity they need and keep their heating bills down.” But Housing Minister Keith Brown says there is “some scepticism” in the industry over the Green Deal.
And David Stewart, policy manager at the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, adds: “We can understand wanting to have a very large-scale scheme that means that an awful lot of homes are being improved, but we tend to think that the only works that really would be funded through the Green Deal would be the lower costs one like insulation, so for many housing associations, they’ve already carried out these sort of works. The sort of work that would improve energy efficiency in their houses would probably be more expensive.
“The other issue we have [is that] housing associations generally feel they are charging the tenants rent to have a warm affordable home, they shouldn’t then get them to pay through their fuel bill for improvements.” His organisation has also criticised another big decision made by the UK Government, to cut the feed-in-tariffs for solar energy, meaning there is less of a subsidy now available to people wanting to install photovoltaic panels on their properties.
DECC has defended the move, because the rate of return from solar power was greater than it had first thought.
But Stewart said: “6,000 properties that were to be fitted with PV panels at an estimated cost of £42m will not now be fitted. The carbon savings of around 24 tonnes per property over 25 years, and millions of pounds that would have been generated to fund energy-efficiency improvements and to generate jobs and training will now be lost.”