The majority of the buildings that will dominate the UK’s skyline in 2050 are already standing, and this means that whatever action is taken to bring new builds to a zero carbon standard, the results will be dwarfed by the effects of our current stock. Even if we assume that the government has all new builds in hand, dealing with carbon targets through improvements to the building regulations, the state of our existing buildings and the energy used to serve them remains a far larger issue.
Despite a push to give free insulation to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it, there has been a disappointingly low rate of implementation, with approximately 50% of cavity still without insulation. This leaves a substantial amount of low-hanging fruit left unpicked, and there are many potential reasons for the lack of take up, including limited public understanding of the issues and how they can be solved, poor publicity of available opportunities, and the difficulty of certain types of insulation, such as that required to treat solid walls. Whatever the reason, we are still wasting an unacceptable amount of money and energy through poorly insulated buildings.
The recent implementation of Green Deal is also failing to deliver, as the finance options are not compelling and the process is over-complex. This is not helped by the fact that very few people even know of its existence, and therefore stand no chance of taking advantage of any opportunities it may present. The issues are further compounded in the commercial market by a lack of incentive for landlords to improve the efficiency of their properties; investing in energy saving measures does not currently mean that they will necessarily get a better return or heightened rental efficiency, so many are passing on the opportunity. Tenants can’t undertake Green Deal measures as the property does not belong to them, so a great number of buildings remain in a state of inertia.
The government has dangled a number of carrots in both the domestic and commercial sectors, targeting low income groups to encourage action, but they are clearly ineffective; huge holes in the efficiency of our building stock remain and clearly are not being addressed by the measures currently in place. Fundamental changes in the way the problem is tackled are therefore required to remove the image of bothersome individuals that try to pedal their wares door-to-door and replace it with an industry of trusted professionals undertaking work that will benefit consumers.
Equally in need of addressing is the lack of faith in the ‘Big Six’, who are no longer trusted to give fair impartial advice; the past year has seen an avalanche of negativity directed at the collective, who stand accused of profiteering and unethical practice. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for the giants, as they’ve just been instructed to repay the £400 million that they’ve been sitting on instead of handing back to consumers as refunds for overpayment, breeding more cynicism. Until we can trust suppliers to act with integrity, it will be difficult to persuade the public to take any of their advice. For too long now there has been a justified assumption that customer benefit is secondary by quite some margin to profit. However, there may be a glimmer of hope as the likes of OVO criticise the big boys on their profiteering ways and offer to pay 3% on all positive balances. This encourages a level of trust not seen in the marketplace since “Tell Sid”. If they develop the trust and offer credible solutions maybe “Sid” will start to listen!
When it comes to zero carbon for new build, there has to be a thorough understanding of how and what this relates to; will it ultimately include all loads and equipment? Will the same rules apply for residential and commercial? Without this clarity, it becomes increasingly difficult to steer the waters of energy efficiency without inadvertently hitting the rocks. Also, some of the UK’s largest energy users relate to process/production requirements, which are no doubt the focus of address by EUETS and CRC. It is therefore imperative to integrate energy generation with the point of use, and Greg Barker MP’s much lauded ‘Big 60,000’ concept will be crucial to the success of the zero carbon economy.
When considering solutions to the retrofit problem, what is needed is a holistic approach. The industry must combine a reduction of energy through insulation with the integration of new plant into existing infrastructure, whilst remaining aware of issues such as over-insulation, which only lead to further need for cooling and therefore greater energy demand. The standards and targets that are coming into play now need to be balanced in such a manner that we install the most cost-effective technology in the right place, rather than applying a one-size-fits-all attitude that won’t necessarily bring the best results.
The focus has to be on existing assets, which will always consume more energy than the zero carbon buildings of tomorrow. Consideration must also be given to the change in climate conditions, which currently indicate increasing external ambient temperatures that will drive up the need for greater cooling provision in the future. We’ve already seen over-insulation of flats, causing unacceptably high internal ambient temperatures during the summer, and over-heating could therefore become as important an issue as energy and heating.
There are many issues surrounding energy reduction: we need to address it within existing properties, raise the moral standards of the large suppliers, encourage consumer trust and awareness, and create intelligent solutions to an increasingly urgent problem. Only once these measures are in place will we face the future with a worthy building stock.