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Climate Change Blog: Retrofit - a vital tool in achieving net zero

28 August 2020

Cath Geoghegan is from Warmer Sussex, a not-for-profit partnership that works with a range of community organisations and trade experts to make homes energy efficient. Here Cath talks about retrofit as a key solution to energy efficiency, and how greater use of it could help ADEPT members in their work towards achieving their net zero targets…

Domestic households cause 22% of greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, mainly because of a lack of energy efficiency in our older housing stock. This means that not only are many of us unknowingly pumping out more CO2 from our homes then we realise, but also that we are spending more on our energy bills than is necessary. 

Our household energy usage is mostly made up by the need to heat homes and water, as well as run appliances. To a degree, this can be reduced with behavioural changes such as making sure we have shorter showers or heat homes on lower temperatures. However, alongside behavioural change, retrofit – which sees new technology and features added to older systems, for example improving existing buildings with energy efficiency measures – can play a huge role in minimising and reducing the energy we use. Retrofitting properties can include installing more insulation and using renewables to heat homes rather than fossil fuels.

Location and affordability were once the only points of consideration when looking at a new home. But now, homeowners and renters alike are becoming more and more aware of energy efficiency and the implications on monthly bills. The creation of ‘property passports’, where retrofit work is logged and tracked, would create a data warehouse for future buyers and renters to download information, see the status of work and what else may need doing. 

Retrofitting was a key manifesto item in the 2019 General Election and will be essential to achieving the Government’s 2050 net zero target. Currently, there are between 25 and 27 million households across the UK that are in need of greater energy efficiency and to achieve the 2050 target, that would mean retrofitting 12,000 homes each week. Even then that would only amount to improving 18 million by 2050.

But it is not just scale that makes retrofit a far from straightforward proposition. When it comes to energy efficiency in homes you have to consider how you insulate, ventilate and heat. What we need are people with the skills to look at all three together, rather than in isolation. For example, heating engineers will look at what is needed in terms of their own specialism but won’t have a detailed understanding of how the pieces fit together. As a result, wider opportunities to improve energy efficiency are being missed. 

The answer is to have assessors and coordinators who are equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills to retrofit. In-house experts would be particularly valuable in local authorities both in terms of managing their own housing stock and because the decisions they make on planning and standards are hugely influential. But, if we consider that there are 12,000 households to retrofit each week, we would still need a workforce roughly double the current size to achieve this. There is clearly a skills gap and to fill that we will need tradesman to up-skill and retrain. Apprenticeship programmes need to be reviewed and partnerships developed with training providers, businesses and the construction sector. Forward-thinking businesses need encouragement and local authorities can provide the space and time for support. 

Cost is also a barrier to retrofit, but this is an opportunity for local authorities to get involved in funding systems at a local level. The Green Finance Institute recently released a report detailing 20 ‘demonstrator’ projects, covering a range of financial products and service developed to overcome the challenges in financing improvements across the range of tenures, socio-economic and geographic factors. The Government’s recently announced Green Homes Grant will provide some assistance to households, which could help up to 600,000 households – is a very small step in the right direction.  This recently published report by New Economics Foundation proposes a four-year government led programme that invests £8.6bn per year, amongst other measures, could reduce emissions from homes by 21% per year.

We have all the tools to be able to roll out retrofit successfully, but now we need to develop a plan that will put them into action. Those that are green minded, or have sufficient income, are among those that are already successfully upgrading their homes. However, it will only be through filling the skills gap and making it a financially viable option on a widespread scale that the greatest impact will be achieved. 

The impacts of Covid-19 have been a tragedy for many people and have changed how we live and work. It has also meant communities have become more aware of their local environments and the need to act on addressing climate change and social exclusion. And as outlined in the Blueprint for accelerating climate action and a green recovery at the local levelpublished by ADEPT and key partners, local authorities have a critical role.

We must invest in a clean and green recovery where retrofit can contribute through providing the new jobs, skills and apprenticeships that which will be badly needed. If local authorities are serious about tackling the climate emergency, retrofit needs to be at the top of the agenda, with national investment to match.