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?
Cost effective district heating schemes need a nice dense energy demand. They also involve a lot of circulating hot water, which with the best will in the world, is going to involve continuous heat loss. Highly-insulated low energy buildings need very little heat – and in the summer, heat gains can be a positive menace.
So can the two work together? I explored the question a bit in this article for Passive House Plus – downloadable here as a pdf.
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.
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.
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.
We look at the carbon footprint from biomass burning (high, even according to DECC) and point out the unintended consequences of well-intentioned planning requirements for ‘renewables’ and ‘sustainability’ – that lead to biomass plant eating up the budget, efficiency being sidelined, and CO2 emissions being high instead of low.
DECC recently ran a consultation on electricity demand reduction (closed January 31st, 2013). I worked with David Olivier and other AECB members to help to compile the AECB’s response, which can be read/downloaded here -with kind permission of the AECB.