COP26 was another reminder of the long road ahead for the built environment so how can we speed things up?

We know by now that in order to save the planet all of the new heating systems being installed in our homes from now on should be of the heat pump variety, or possibly hydrogen powered boilers if that technology can ever be made to work safely.

What we don’t yet know is how on earth we will achieve this herculean feat!

To be fair the deadline for delivering this massive change is still a few years away but given all the catching up that needs to be done, there is really no excuse for delaying things any further.

We need to be taking action now.

There are, however, a number of pretty big hurdles that we need to navigate first.

It would be helpful for all concerned if there was a detailed National Plan showing us what we need to do, by when, using what resources and how this will all be paid for.

We simply cannot rely on new builds to get us to net zero.

Patrick Mooney Patrick Mooney Housing Management and Maintenance magazine

Understanding the context

Firstly we need to recognise the scale of the challenge.

There are almost 30 million homes in the UK and at present less than a quarter of a million of them have heat pumps.

Back in 2019, 27,000 new heat pumps were installed into UK homes. This year, installations of heat pumps in the UK are expected to reach 70,000, equating to an increase of 260 per cent.

That represents a very impressive rate of growth, except that as a country we now need to repeat this several times over!

The Prime Minister’s Ten Point Plan for a Green industrial revolution sets an ambition to install 600,000 heat pumps in our homes per year by 2028.

That’s an increase of 860 per cent – representing a more than three-fold increase to what has been achieved in the last three years, albeit over a longer period.

Big numbers

And before we get in any way complacent, the Climate Change Committee is saying that 3.3 million heat pumps need to be installed in our existing homes by 2030, rising to eight million by 2035.

This level of growth is literally eye-popping and the sort of increase we normally only associate with the tiger economies of South-East Asia. Hence the need for a National Plan!

One figure that gives me some grounds for optimism is that back in 2019 there were 1.7 million boilers (of all fuel types) replaced in the UK.

It took us a while to build up to this level of activity, but it shows the scale that can be achieved when we have an established and well-resourced supply chain, as well as a national workforce trained, experienced and equipped to deliver at scale.

A recent study from the thinktank Onward estimated that while the need to retrofit homes and ensure low-carbon domestic heating will create around 1.1 million new jobs by 2030, only 5,700 workers a year are currently training in these areas.

Step by step

But before we launch headlong into a drive to buy up all of the world’s capacity for making heat pumps and for re-training gas engineers and plumbers, we need to sort out one or two other related “issues”.

The accepted best practice and recommended course of action is – that before we install heat pumps in our homes, we ensure that our homes are insulated to a higher standard than now.

This means having double or even triple glazed windows, as well as better insulation in loft spaces and the walls of our homes.

This is a particular challenge in the UK, because British homes currently lose heat at up to three times the rate of our neighbours across the Channel, on mainland Europe.

We also need to factor in that more than 80% of the homes we’ll be living in by 2050 have already been built and the vast majority require major upgrades to reach the required energy efficiency standards.

We simply cannot rely on new builds to get us to net zero.

Private rentals are a challenge

Possibly the sector which presents the greatest challenge is the private rented sector, which represents 19% of all homes in the UK but whose ownership is spread very thinly across many thousands of landlords, the majority of which own fewer than five properties and who might be best described as amateur landlords.

How can we incentivise them to modernise their stock and spend vast sums of money on retrofitting expensive heat pumps into them?

The Government has already said that properties in the private rented sector need to meet higher energy efficiency standards.

They need to reach EPC band C (on the rating scale A to G) by 2028, when the majority of them are currently at D or E.

According to the English Housing Survey the average cost of bringing a privately rented dwelling up to EPC band C is £7,646.

The total cost of bringing all 2.9 million privately rented dwellings in England that are currently EPC band D or lower, up to EPC band C is a staggering £21.5 billion.

Costings

But even this could be a huge under estimate. Last year a survey of social housing landlords found the average estimated cost of retrofitting and upgrading a typical rental property to net zero-carbon standards was £20,000 per home.

For private rentals, which are less uniform and more dispersed, the cost is likely to be higher.

If the Government does not come up with a decent package of incentives and grants or low-interest loans for landlords, then it risks a tsunami of private rentals being sold in a fire-sale of epic proportions between now and 2028.

We also need a huge publicity scheme to convince the public (and the legion of small private landlords) about the need to embrace non carbon based fuels as our preferred means for heating our homes and the water we wash with.

A good example

As an example of what can be achieved, we should look across the North Sea to Norway where heat pumps are already the main form of heating in more than one third of the country’s houses and heat pumps accounted for 95% of new heating installations in 2020.

The phasing out of fossil fuels for heating and the transition to low carbon heat will be extremely challenging, but it’s not impossible.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, we do however, need a clear plan to guide us along this path to net zero.

Each household’s retrofitting needs will be unique based on the age, quality and existing insulation of their home.

But the Government has the levers of state at its disposal to establish a roadmap for the country to follow and for the nation to meet our international obligations.

2050 is less than 30 years away and the clock is ticking!

Patrick Mooney is editor of Housing Management and Maintenance magazine