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Patrick Mooney explores why new technologies are inspiring him to be more optimistic about our use of energy

The challenges posed by global warming in terms of how can we reduce carbon emissions, safeguard our health and pass on a better planet earth to future generations, are so huge they can easily overwhelm us into believing we as individuals can do next to nothing about it.

When you add in the financial pressures still reverberating from the banking crisis of ten years ago and the uncertainty caused by Brexit, it is perhaps easy to understand why so many of us are struggling to engage with the ‘Green’ agenda.

We know we should be doing more to cut down on waste and make better use of resources, but we put off doing anything significant or major to another day.

We can decarbonise the production of electricity and supply it to our homes in ways that do not threaten our very existence

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine

Changing our habits isn’t easy

I am as guilty as the next person at failing to consider my impact on the planet every day, or even every week or month. But every now and then, something catches my attention and sparks me into action.  

A huge volume of emails arrive in my postbox at work each day, many of them are marketing a variety of products (which I will never even think of using), some of which promise to change my life FOREVER! The other day one such email arrived and it really caught my eye.

It was for a low-energy scheme in in the south of England, which will provide ‘cheap’ electric power for the council’s entire vehicle fleet, as well as the city’s taxis and provide heating for upto 300 homes. The city in question wants to become zero carbon to improve its residents’ health and it has teamed up with a world famous university to deliver on its ambitions.

Given its grand promises, I decided to inquire further. Particularly as the email’s arrival coincided with me looking at a Government statistics bulletin on the energy performance of new buildings in 2018.

Grounds for optimism

There is encouragement of sorts in that our newly built houses are emitting far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than our existing homes (1.68 tonnes a year, as opposed to 4.78 tonnes), but these are still adding to an over-supply of carbon dioxide already up there.

But the really impressive statistics come when looking at the average energy consumption figures and costs when comparing new versus old.

Some 84 per cent of new homes attained the top two energy efficiency ratings of A and B, compared to just three per cent of existing homes. The comparison of environmental impact ratings (based on carbon emissions) are even more stark – with 88 per cent of new dwellings scoring the best ratings of A and B, against just over four per cent of existing residential properties.

Impressive savings

New houses are costing us on average £294 a year on heating, £93 a year on hot water and £72 on lighting. Meanwhile our existing houses cost us £789 a year to heat, £136 for hot water and £89 to light. You also need to factor in that new houses are on average ten per cent bigger than our existing ones (at 112 square metres compared to 101) and the annual savings (of £555) speak for themselves!

For flats the annual saving on energy costs is £247, when comparing newly built to the average existing properties, which is still pretty impressive and worth having in this age of higher fuel bills.

Part of the impressive improvement in these costs comes from newer construction methods and materials, better insulation, more use of double and triple glazing, etc, but we are also using more fuel-efficient heating systems.

Our modern boilers are much better at converting raw energy fuel into heating and hot water for our homes, although the days of gas fired boilers are limited and will need to be phased out.

How we can de-carbonise?

A growing contribution is now being made by ground source and air source heat pumps. These harness ‘natural energy’ from the earth, water and air all around us to deliver cleaner energy into our homes. As technology improves and more heat pumps are being installed, their cost is coming down and their reach is increasing.

The recently completed Aaben development just south of Manchester city centre in Hulme is a good example of how this new technology is helping to reduce our carbon footprint. The scheme consists of 105 flats for market rent, on a site which was previously used as a cinema and as a bingo hall.

Eight air source heat pumps are located on the building’s roof and these power the communal heating system, which in turn provides heat and hot water to the individual flats, with each tenant charged via a meter for the amount of heat energy they have taken from the network.

The retrofit challenge

However, it also remains the case that it is easier and cheaper to install new technologies like heat pumps and communal heating systems and networks into new housing developments, than it is to retrofit them. Resolving this is part of the next challenge in reducing our carbon footprint and emissions into the atmosphere.

It is a problem we need to find a solution form if we are to convince the country’s army of private landlords to embrace this new technology and invest in their rental stock of housing.

Over in Oxford the plan is for ground source heat pumps and an underground network loop to be combined with smart meters and controls to minimise energy use at high peak and high cost times, and to maximise use at times of lower prices.

Work is expected to start soon on identifying the properties to take part, but the organisers are hoping for a mix of retrofit and new build, with a variety of tenures so both owner occupiers and tenants benefit from the anticpated savings. Ideally clusters of up to 30 homes will be networked, so we are looking at manageable numbers and it means the pilot project will not be restricted to just a single location in the city.

The project’s targets are impressive, as they aim to produce heating at prices below those for mains supplied gas boilers, while also delivering a 50 per cent cut in the carbon footprint of traditional heating systems and greatly reducing levels of air pollution.

A brighter future

Reading about schemes such as those in Manchester and Oxford give me grounds for optimism that more and more manufacturers and builders in the country are seeing the benefits of adopting Green principles and are working hard at designing practical solutions to one of mankind’s biggest and most fundamental challenges in this modern world.

A little while ago these problems seemed to be intractable but human ingenuity is showing we can decarbonise the production of electricty and supply it to our homes in ways that do not threaten our very existence.

The next step, after Brexit is resolved one way or another, is to persuade our national politicians to openly embrace the new technologies and to incentivise builders and landlords to increase the rate at which they convert their business activities and processes into delivering cleaner, more energy efficient homes – new and existing - for us all to live in. 

I shall keep a vigilant eye open on my email inbox to learn about the next impressive development in this area and while it appears clear the direction of travel is correct, we would certainly benefit from the pace of change picking up. 

Patrick Mooney is news editor of Housing Management & Maintenance magazine