The UK has the draughtiest and oldest housing in Western Europe that has contributed to 13% of English households living in fuel poverty, but lost heat is harming our planet alongside our bank balances.
The inefficient gas boilers that heat our homes emit more carbon dioxide than all of the country’s power stations. 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our housing stock. Retrofitting Britain’s 27 million homes is a critical step to reaching net zero. Homes need insulating and, gas boilers need replacing with heat pumps supplied by carbon-free electricity.
Only 1% of British homes have heat pumps installed, compared to 60% in Norway and 43% in Sweden, and despite the need for a transition away from gas boilers, the UK continues to install 1.5 million each year. Globally, as the planet warms, heat pumps will become a logical technological change as more locations, including southern areas of the UK, will require homes that need heating in the winter and air conditioning in the summer months.
However, currently, while additionally insulating homes remains a smart financial decision, as the cost is eventually paid back in lower bills, heat pumps are expensive and deliver little if any savings. The Energy Saving Trust estimates the average heat pump installation costs around £6000 – £8000, and most houses would see an increase in energy bills if they installed one without additional insulation.
Therefore, the government should move towards policies that incentivise insulating homes and replacing boilers by providing grants for retrofitting and heat pumps. The current government policy does reflect this need, but their targets are frustratingly low. The government has committed to grants to help people buy and install heat pumps (you can get up to £5000), but only 30,000 homes would be able to benefit from the government grant. They estimate 600,000 heat pumps being installed a year by 2028, but industry insiders are sceptical that funding is sufficient to meet even this target.
The Great Homes Upgrade, a campaign to retrofit and decarbonise our housing, want the government to commit to retrofitting 19 million homes by 2030, upgrading every home below the energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of C. They have called on the government to commit an additional £11.7bn over the next three years to put them on a path to solving this issue and directly create 190,000 jobs.
The scheme would: invest money into grants for increasing the efficiency of homes, enforce minimum energy efficiency standards for all properties and upskill workers for retrofitting jobs to create a national retrofit task force, though this would be administered at the local level.
Alongside dramatically reducing emissions, it would save the average household over £400 on an average dual fuel energy bill. Such an upgrade would allow the government to meet its carbon targets, but the investment for such a project is not forthcoming.
One reason this might be is, such an approach would need to be accompanied by an equally dramatic increase in electricity production, alongside potential serious upgrades to the grid. One study estimates that if 5.7 million new heat pumps were installed by 2035, it would require reinforcement of 42% of the distribution network costing £40.7 billion, far surpassing the savings homeowners would make from retrofitted housing. The switch from gas to electric heating is something that will require serious investment but while government leadership is important a municipal rollout of retrofits is probably advisable.
One reason for this is, there are worries from the experts that retrofitting without proper regulation or accountability could have serious health consequences. Research by the University of Exeter found reported asthma problems increased in homes renovated to make them more energy-efficient.
Therefore, local solutions with proper accountability would be required to ensure material standards are maintained to minimise risks. Local retrofitting co-operatives, such as Retrofit Works and People Powered Retrofit, could be the ideal companies for decarbonising housing.
People Powered Retrofit, a co-operative based in Greater Manchester, allows a more holistic and individual approach to retrofitting, helping with a five-stage retrofit process that helps customers procure the best contractors; overseeing quality assurance to offering impartial, expert advice.
People Power Retrofit ensure that clients understand the health implications of some insulation materials and advocate for natural solutions that don’t have the drawbacks of artificial materials, such as Synthetics or glass wool.
Within the sector, retrofitting co-operative should be partnering with enterprises to provide tailored retrofits but, cooperation can go further. For example, Coop Energy provides a zero-carbon tariff, powered entirely by Community Renewable Energy Co-operatives and retrofitting co-operatives could learn from this. One possibility is joining forces with rooftop solar coops, such as The Big Solar Coop, to help meet their consumers’ additional electricity demand with cheap carbon-free energy and mitigate the need for grid upgrades in the future. Additionally, Ecology Building Society already offer loans to finance green investments and could be an ideal partner to help make heat pumps more affordable to more homeowners.
Twinned with additional government support, co-operative and municipal solutions could deliver sustainable and effective retrofits to decarbonise housing but, we critically need fewer gas boilers to help reduce our emissions.
The nation needs to retrofit its buildings to fight climate change and, while more government response is required to make heat pumps and other technology more affordable, there remains a market for retrofits that co-operatives can fill effectively.
If you want to invest in a retrofitting Co-operative, you can invest here in People Powered Retrofit, for a limited time only.