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The Future of Comfort in our homes

Introduction

Fabric improvements

Incentivising change

Meeting the skills gap

Conclusion

Introduction

As part of efforts to cut carbon emissions from domestic heating, the Government has started to consult on changes to the energy standards required in part L of the Building Regulations. But regulatory reform alone is not the answer. To discuss the challenges and how best to make the transition to decarbonise our homes, Vaillant hosted a roundtable with representatives from the heating, energy and construction industry earlier this year. Mark Wilkins, head of training and external affairs at Vaillant Group, takes a look at the issues discussed.

To stand a chance of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, there is no doubt that we must act now. But the journey towards a greener, cleaner world will not be an easy one. So what should industry, Government and trade associations do to speed up efforts to decarbonise our homes? What are the issues at stake, and how can we continue to deliver comfortable living conditions without putting a further strain on the planet? These were just some of the questions posed when a group of industry stakeholders convened earlier this year, to debate what needs to happen in order to make it feasible to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Fabric improvements

It was agreed by all that improving the fabric of our buildings to reduce their heat demand is vital. Whilst new properties are more energy efficient, the biggest challenge lies in retrofitting existing homes and ensuring that the improvements make a difference now and into the future.

Kevin Cox, operations manager at integrated building solutions firm J Tomlinson, pointed out that most housing associations they work with focus on the easiest solutions such as windows, doors and cavity insulation. More energy-efficient lighting and boilers are also often considered to reduce the level of energy demand. However, Les Finucane, business development director from heating contractor’s, BSW Heating, pointed out that “deep retrofit is needed in many cases, especially for old Victorian properties. But very little is done in terms of the fabric of the building - it’s often a short term fix”, such as carrying out appropriate maintenance and repair, and upgrading to a more energy efficient boiler.

This approach poses a stark contrast to the more holistic way of upgrading the energy efficiency of our homes that is beginning to emerge in some market sectors, where a whole house approach is being advocated in selected instances. Howard Porter, CEO of the British Electrotechnical and Allied Manufacturers' Association, supported this move, “There are some measures that need to be done in conjunction with other measures.” He also added that “classic problems such as putting in lots of external wall insulation and forgetting about ventilation” can be avoided.

Incentivising change

Whilst tighter regulations can drive down emissions by making it compulsory for properties to meet certain standards, we also need financial incentives. A ‘stick and carrot’ approach, as Lesley Rudd, CEO of Sustainable Energy Association, puts it. But the question is – who should ultimately pay for the cost of schemes that encourage the use of low-carbon solutions? Bean Beanland, Chairman of the Ground Source Heat Pump Association, felt that the economic benefits of decarbonisation should be made loud and clear. “One of the issues in the retrofit market is that it is a private investment for the public good. At the moment, government is not recognising this – RHI (Renewable Heat Incentive) was a stab at that. But we need a long term view that makes the low-carbon industry investable. We need the Treasury to come up with some hard values on what is the public benefit from decarbonisation.”

In the public housing sector, many providers are currently considering low carbon solutions. However, Kevin Cox highlighted that long-term access to funding is needed. “We have a big pipeline of social housing that want low carbon solutions – ground source / air source heat pumps for instance. They’re coming back to us because of the deadline to apply for the Renewable Heat Incentive and start their projects. But the biggest problem we have is projects often take a long time to come to fruition.” The absence of long-term government policy and strategy, combined with cuts to funding, led Les Finucane, to say he felt that gas boilers tend to be their first choice, when there is a limited pot of money available.

Meeting the skills gap

A key part of the puzzle is, of course, ensuring that there are enough engineers and installers with the knowledge, skills and experience to design and install low carbon technologies. Unless there is a clear direction from the government to drive demand for these solutions, there is very little incentive to undertake additional training. Les Finucane explained, “There’s got to be a market first. At the moment, there is little point training up large numbers of engineers if they don’t have the work to do and the opportunity to keep their skills current.” But Lesley Rudd recognised that training and upskilling provides a platform to get ahead of the game. “We need to be viewing this as an opportunity for installers and they need to be encouraged to learn new skills and transition to low carbon solutions. The industry needs to recognise that and think how we can work together.”

Conclusion

Energy reduction is a crucial starting point and should be a national infrastructure priority. Thereafter, there is no silver bullet. The diversity of our country’s housing stock and the communities they serve means that different markets need different policies and financial support, to drive demand and investment in low-carbon solutions. A mix of technologies, combined with a holistic, whole-house approach will be needed. Supported by the right training for system designers and those on the ground installing them, action on climate change can be accelerated.