Electric Heating – time to come in from the cold?

While there are well-established technologies to produce electricity without fossil fuels, decarbonisation of heat is struggling to get under way. Recommended strategies include expansion of low carbon networked heat and possibly the decarbonisation of gas – though these are still only happening at a scale (and with dubious carbon credentials, see PH+ Iss 15 – district heating). However, the commonest proposed means for decarbonising heat is via electrification.

Electrification of heat raises a number of questions about the ability of our power systems to produce enough low carbon electricity and their capacity to transmit it.  But it also represents something of a u-turn in building services design.

Electricity is still generated in large part from burning fossil fuels – including some high-carbon coal — in power stations that lose more than half the energy as heat.  For this reason electric heating – particularly direct electric heating – has had a well-deserved reputation for being high carbon and inefficient, to be avoided or replaced as a matter of course.

But things are changing – very fast. Thanks to Passivhaus in particular, fabric heat demand can be dramatically lower than it was in the ‘bad old days’ – and electricity is decarbonising at a pace: the UK has recently even enjoyed a couple of entirely coal-free days of generation.

Is it time for a rethink of the place of electric heating?

Click to view or download the pdf Together in Electric Dreams, written for Passive House Plus (issue 19)

 

 

 

Risks of Retrofit

A well-designed and well-executed retrofit will not only save energy, it should offer a more comfortable, healthier indoor environment, and protect the building fabric as well. However, there have been a number of warnings about what might go wrong – sometimes, even suggestions that in some instances retrofit measures should not be undertaken at all.

Are these warnings justified? What might go wrong? What is the evidence in practice? In this article, first published in Green Building in 2015, I look at some of the concerns, examine the reasons behind them, and suggest ways to protect building and occupants so retrofit really delivers.

Risks of retrofit – article from Green Building Magazine

 

Deep retrofit – the big prize?

Simple home energy efficiency improvements (such as new boilers, cavity wall insulation etc) can bring valuable comfort and health benefits to the occupants of inefficient homes – especially those in fuel poverty – as the last article revealed (see here). However, energy, carbon and bill savings tend to be modest, rarely topping 15% or 20% – and sometimes energy use actually increases!

If housing is to contribute its share of the 80% cuts in carbon emissions this country is committed to, in order to play is part in tackling climate change, retrofits will need to go deeper – a lot deeper. But will occupants benefit from the extra work? And is it affordable?

In the first part of this article we looked at the damage fuel poverty and cold homes do to occupants’ health, and found good evidence that when these twin evils were tackled, occupants could enjoy measurable improvements in their health. Encouragingly, some local health bodies are recognising this and investing in home retrofit to help improve people’s health.

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Fixing fuel poverty – is there a healthier way?

Fuel poverty causes misery and ill-health – and alleviating fuel poverty by retrofitting homes could potentially offer valuable savings to the health services. However, different approaches to retrofit are likely to have different impacts on health.

The first in this two-part series, published in Green Building in December 2014, looks at how cold, damp homes can harm people’s heath, and at the evidence to date that retrofit can improve matters.  It also explores some pioneering efforts by concerned health organisations to tackle the ill health of their vulnerable patients where it starts – by fixing their cold homes.

The second part, due to be published in Spring 2015, will look a little more closely at different retrofit strategies, and the risks and benefits to occupants – and to the buildings themselves.

PDF download: Fuel poverty and health – Part 1

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Prescribing healthy homes

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recently ran a consultation on the guidance they give to health bodies and local authorities on reducing the burden of winter deaths and illnesses from cold homes.

The AECB (Association for Environment Conscious Building) along with the STBA (Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance) and Severn Wye Energy Agency submitted a  response, which I helped to draft.

The response welcomed the idea that health professionals should be involved in identifying and tackling unhealthy homes. It also emphasised that excess winter deaths and illnesses were almost certainly due to a combination of low indoor temperatures and poor indoor air quality (exacerbated by cold surfaces in uninsulated homes, and by occupants restricting ventilation to keep out cold draughts), and that an emphasis on low temperatures alone could miss significant causes of ill-health – and valuable remedies.

You can download the response here: NICE excess winter deaths and illnesses consultation response

You can also find out more about the original NICE consultation on the AECB website here

 

Why I think retrofit needs to move off energy bills and on to general taxation

Like many others, I am horrified that the government has scaled back aspects of the Energy Company Obligation mid-programme. You can read about some of the immediate, alarming consequences of this in a report from Inside Housing here.

However, as I’ve said before, it seems to me that long-term  it makes little sense to restrict the national retrofit programme to what can be funded via a charge on energy bills. In summary, this is why:

  • Retrofit is about more than energy bills, it’s about health, education, social welfare and common decency. And about energy security and cutting emissions.
  • Because of the state of our housing and therefore, the scale of the need, a high spend is required.
  • Because of the scale and the range of the benefits, a major retrofit programme would bring tangible revenue savings to a range of bodies such as those tasked with improving economic, health, social welfare and educational outcomes, and delivering on our carbon targets.
  • Paying for retrofit through energy bills is regressive, hitting the poorest proportionally hardest, even at current spending levels.
  • The scale of the spending needs to expand many-fold. This would ramp up the regressiveness. In effect, every household, including the poorest,  would be paying a substantial chunk of the costs for NHS, social welfare etc via their energy bills. This is not only likely to be politically untenable, it also undermines the accepted approach to progressive taxation in this country.
  • The creation of a third party obligation, ‘leaving it to the market’ to decide what to deliver on the basis of a very simplified understanding of costs and benefits, cuts informed stakeholders out of the equation. It excludes them from them any meaningful say over priorities, responsiveness to changing needs, and quality of interventions.
  • It also ignores the ‘beneficiary pays’ principle: health, education and welfare budgets would all benefit considerably, on the back of bill payers.

*The ECO recognises only two parameters of benefit, presumed carbon savings (calculated via RdSAP), and “affordability” again, calculated via RdSAP.

 

Allowable Solutions Consultation – silly policy, but still worth responding

Plenty of scorn has been poured on the way that the zero carbon homes target has been watered down, then watered down again, as if it were a homoeopathic remedy for climate change.

Others, notably Nick Grant and Doug King, have led the charge against the very concept of zero carbon buildings as being an illogical concept that diverts construction from what it could be doing best — and I cheerfully count myself among their followers.

However, on the particular point of the current government consultation on the Allowable Solutions element of “Zero Carbon Homes”, I do think it is worth engaging – as there is an opportunity to make the arguments that high fabric standards should be at the heart of the zero carbon policy. Who can say how long the Zero Carbon Homes policy will last? – however, the better the fabric standards we have at the core of it, the better placed we’ll be to replace it with something more sensible.

I have had a look at parts of what DCLG is consulting on, and describe and comment on what I found, in the article below.

Download Article on Allowable Solutions Consultation October 2013 (pdf)

The article also contains the links to the DCLG consultation documents.

STOP PRESS! Doug King has shared his response to this consultation, making the case very thoroughly that “offsetting” energy use and carbon emissions from housing, by reducing energy use and emissions in other sectors, is a nonsense. Those other sectors should be making those cuts anyway – all selling them off as “allowable solutions” does is to pick off the low-hanging fruit from another sector, making it more expensive for them to do what they need to do. The net effect would probably be to reduce energy use an emisissons LESS than you would if proper energy and carbon standards were applied to housebuilding in the first place.

Read his response here:

http://www.dougking.co.uk/allowable-solutions-response/