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Housing

How you can make your home energy efficient

Housing is a big contributor to the UK’s carbon footprint and making homes energy efficient is key to the climate crisis fight.

Homes contribute around a fifth of the UK’s carbon output so if the country is going to hit its target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, making every home energy efficient is going to play a big role.

The Westminster government unveiled its plan to slash the emissions from homes in the Heat and Buildings Strategy on October 19 2021 – just two weeks before the start of the COP26 climate conference.

The plan set out a target for all new heating systems being installed in the UK to use low-carbon technologies or fuels by 2035 but stopped short of an outright ban on boilers. Insteads a £5,000 grant will be available from April 2022 to allow households to install heat pumps

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Prime minister Boris Johnson said: “As we clean up the way we heat our homes over the next decade, we are backing our brilliant innovators to make clean technology like heat pumps as cheap to buy and run as gas boilers – supporting thousands of green jobs.”

But how homes are heated is only part of the process of going green, keeping the heat in is just as important.

The £3.9bn funding package accompanying the Heat and Buildings Strategy also covered money for four existing programmes to this: the public sector decarbonisation scheme, the Home Upgrade Grant scheme, the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund and the Heat Network Transformation Programme.

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How will homes become greener over the next few decades? How can you make a difference? How much will it cost you? The Big Issue has the answers below.

What makes a net-zero home?

To put it simply, a net-zero home can be defined as one that produces zero carbon emissions. That means the amount of greenhouse gas produced by the building is offset by the amount removed from the atmosphere. This is achieved by building new homes sustainably, retrofitting old housing stock and switching to renewable energy sources to heat and power the homes.

Why do we need net-zero energy homes?

The UK is in a race to become net zero by 2050 to reduce the impact of climate change – and buildings are going to play a huge role in reaching that target.

According to the UK Green Building Council, the built environment makes up 40 per cent of the UK’s total carbon footprint with almost half of the footprint related to energy used in buildings and infrastructure around them. Homes are a big part of the built environment – there are 29 million across the UK and they account for around a fifth of the total carbon footprint.

James Prestwick, director of policy and external affairs at the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH), said: “Decarbonisation of the housing stock is one of the biggest hurdles that must be overcome for the United Kingdom to achieve its net zero ambitions. It also provides a great opportunity to provide warm,comfortable homes for everyone that are affordable to heat.”

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Without significant efforts to decarbonise homes to make them more energy efficient, there is no hope of the UK becoming carbon neutral and this is why the government has introduced its Heat and Buildings Strategy.

It’s a costly challenge though. While the government has announced a 3.9bn package to support the Heat and Buildings Strategy over the next three years, overall costs are set to be much higher over the long run.

The National Housing Federation estimates that decarbonising the 2.7 million homes in England owned by housing associations will cost £36bn on top of the £70bn associations are already planning to invest in futureproofing.

Kate Henderson, chief executive of the National Housing Federation, said: “It’s not all about investment, either. Housing associations need direction from government on everything from what fabric standards will be necessary to support clean heat, how we can accurately measure decarbonisation, and crucially reform of electricity pricing to ensure new heating systems don’t lead to higher bills.”

What is a good energy efficiency rating?

Homes are given a rating of how energy efficient they are, known as an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC). It is a legal requirement to have a valid EPC and in Scotland the rating must be displayed somewhere in the property.

The EPC lasts for 10 years and is rated from A to G with A being the most efficient and G being the least.

Currently, the Westminster government has committed to bringing as many private rented sector homes as possible to EPC band C or above by 2035, where “practical, cost-effective and affordable”. The Scottish government has a route map to meet their own EPC target by 2030.

So far, around 40 per cent of UK homes have achieved a band C energy rating, up from nine per cent in 2008, according to the latest government figures.

That leaves around 19 million homes still to hit the required energy rating. Think tank New Economics Foundation is among the groups urging investment in retrofitting to hit the 2035 target. It has called for a national retrofit taskforce to work in collaboration with local authorities to get homes up to scratch as well as government investment and taxation changes to give households financial incentives to make their homes greener.

How can I make my home more energy efficient?

Making your home energy efficient and reducing emissions is about thinking about the energy needed to power and heat your home and how much heat stays in the property.

Confusion on how to do this has been one of the biggest issues facing homeowners, Citizens Advice said in August 2021, describing installing low-carbon heating, upgrading insulation or installing smart technologies is “time-consuming, confusing and stressful”.

There are a few things you can do though.

You can swap to renewable energy. While the current energy crisis means it is not the best time to switch supplier, you can seek out suppliers who offer tariffs that target renewable energy. Currently around 40 per cent of the National Grid’s electricity supply is powered by renewables, compared to around a quarter from fossil fuels.

For those who afford it, you can also install low-carbon measures like solar panels to power your home. There is some government support available for this: the smart export guarantee was launched by the UK government on January 1 2020 to pay back small-scale electric generators for the power they contribute to the national grid.

Installing a smart meter lets you keep a better handle on how much electricity and gas you’re using too. Energy suppliers are continuing to roll out smart meters to customers around the UK and they are mostly free of charge.

Swamping to a heat pump, as the government is encouraging with their new Heat and Buildings Strategy, can also boost your home’s green credentials. They can be costly to install – one Octopus Energy estimate reckoned it could cost around £2,500 upfront for installation – which is why the government is offering a £5,000 grant to cover the cost. But they tend to need less maintenance and have a longer lifespan than traditional boilers.

Keeping the heat in is also important. Insulating your roof and walls and draught-proofing windows is also important to improve the energy efficiency of your home.

Up to a quarter of heat can be lost through the roof of an uninsulated home, according to the Energy Saving Trust, but installing insulation over and between rafters can help.

And for windows, fitting self-adhesive foam strips or metal or plastic strips with brushes or wipers attached, to eliminate draughts can keep the cold and out and the heat in. 

How much does it cost to make a house energy efficient?

Initial upfront costs of making your home energy efficient can be pricey and there is a worry that people on low-incomes who are already being hit by rising energy prices might be left even further behind in the least energy efficient homes.

And support doesn’t always filter through to the people who need it most. A recent Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee on fuel poverty found less than 15 per cent of the £2.8bn in funding, such as the Energy Company Obligation, Warm Home Discount and Winter Fuel Payment, reached the poorest households in England.

While initial installation can be expensive, the long-term financial benefits of making your home more energy efficient can be almost as significant as the environmental ones.

While it may cost up to £2,500 to install a heat pump, it can reportedly save up to £1,000 on bills. 

It’s a similar story for solar panels. Depending on the size of the system, it can cost anywhere between £2,000 and £8,000 to install them on your roof. The average cost is around £4,800 to install an average domestic solar PV system according to the Energy Saving Trust. But the panels can save anywhere between £200 and £300 on bills.

As for insulation, installing insulation on and between rafters can be more expensive than standard loft insulation but it can save on bills. The average cost of roof insulation in a property can reach up to £400 but can save up to £300 a year on energy bills in a detached property.

There are other cheaper hacks to insulating your home. Draught-proofing around windows and doors can cost up to £200 for the whole house, according to the Energy Saving Trust’s estimates for a typical gas-fuelled semi-detached property in England, Scotland or Wales. That can save around £25 a year.

With the target of reaching net-zero by 2050, the pressure is on leaders to help people on all incomes make their homes more energy efficient, so support such as the grant installed to fit  heat pumps is likely to grow in the future.

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