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Patrick Mooney asks if we are about to see a major shift in how energy is provided to private tenants’ homes.

Tenants in the private rented sector spend more money on heating their homes than other residents, but the recently published United Nations report on climate change could spark a major shift in how energy is provided to tenants’ homes and bring a welcome reduction in their domestic bills.

In Britain our homes are the country’s second biggest user of energy after transport.

The electricity and gas we consume in vast quantities is mainly used for heating, hot water and cooking, as well as running the vast array of white goods (fridges, freezers, dish washers, tumble dryers etc) and smart devices like televisions and personal computers that we all possess.

The Government has set itself a target to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent, by the year 2050.

Housing has an enormous part to play in achieving this, with radical changes and solutions required across an industry that has often been slow to react in the past.

Damp and draughty homes

For years the private rented sector has lagged behind other tenure types in terms of its general condition and tenants’ quality of life.

Due to the nature and age of properties owned by private landlords, they tend to be less energy efficient than other forms of housing – as shown in property SAP ratings.

In the latest reported survey of property conditions, the average SAP rating of private rented homes was 60, just below the level of owner occupied homes (61), but considerably lower than social rented homes which are far more energy efficient with a rating of 67.

The difference is partly explained by the private rented sector having an 'older' housing stock (much of it is pre-1940 terraced houses) which is generally less well insulated. But it is also more likely to be damp and to suffer higher rates of disrepair.

Better insulation

The good news is that conditions in the private rented sector are improving at a faster rate than in other housing tenures. Much of this improvement has happened in the last 20 years and is down to the huge growth in newer homes being rented out through buy-to-let or property being specifically built for rental purposes.

To date much of the nation’s focus has been on improving energy efficiency through new insulation to walls and roofs, fitting double glazed windows and new doors, as well as other improvements in property conditions, such as replacing roofs and fitting new boilers.

Since April 2018 there has been a requirement for all private rented homes to have a minimum energy performance rating of E, unless there is an applicable exemption.

In 2016, around seven per cent (320,000) of private rented homes had a rating lower than E, with an F or G EER rating band which are the two least energy efficiency bands. The proportion of social rented homes with
the lowest (F or G) EER bands was just one per cent.

Changing to renewable energy sources

But these measures have all been focussed on simply reducing our use of energy.

The UN report is surely a wake up call for all of us to make a step change in our efforts and to tackle a largely overlooked aspect – changing the sources of our energy from traditional carbon based fossil fuels, to more environmentally sustainable ones.

One way to do this is by changing energy suppliers. The Guardian newspaper’s financial advice team estimate that the average British householder can save more than £250 on their annual domestic fuel bill by switching to an energy supplier that offers electricity from 100 per cent renewable sources.

Offshore windfarms already provide nearly one tenth of our electricity with further growth planned although the large turbines are unpopular with many people and obtaining consent for new windfarms is likely to be more difficult. There is also a reluctance to focus too much effort on nuclear power plants because of worries over their safety, while fracking is a very divisive issue.

Going green

As individuals we can also make a difference by turning to ‘green’ energy sources for our homes. Existing examples of these include the following:

  • Photovoltaic solar panels on our roofs;

  • Geothermal heat pumps or heat exchangers to move heat energy into the earth (cooling) and out of the earth (heating)
  • Air source heat pumps which harvest renewable heat from the outdoor air and upgrade it to deliver heating and hot water for the home 
  • Biomass plants, which can turn waste into useable energy.

Alternatively, more use can be made of district heating systems which are far more efficient than individual property based central heating systems and can justify the higher initial costs.

The Green Deal which supplied loans and grants to people to have insulation installed or improved in their homes, was scrapped after only a few years and has not been replaced.

In any case it was primarily directed at homeowners and failed to get much traction with landlords or their tenants, ignoring the needs of 40 per cent of the population.

Incentives required

This programme of investment needs to be redesigned and restarted so that landlords and their tenants can make their contribution to changing our energy habits.

Through the use of tax breaks and grants to subsidise the initial cost of installing new equiment, or in funding discounts in energy charges from renewable sources, the Government can stimulate and incentivise changes that can also benefit tenants (as energy consumers) through lower costs and lower bills.

Future generations will not thank us for failing to take decisive action now.