Warm Homes for All: how do we speed up the uptake of retrofits?

Highlights from CIED/ACE roundtable event by Nora Blascsok

Making our homes as comfortable and aesthetically pleasing as possible is an aspiration of many. However, not enough people realise that measures to make their homes more energy efficient can also deliver these outcomes. How do we make sure people know about this and care? What is the role of government in helping those who can’t afford to make these improvements and are struggling to pay their energy bills due to the inefficient, old building stock they live in?

These were some of the questions discussed at a roundtable event on ‘Warm Homes for All: Can a mix of integrated business models, flexible finance and community intermediaries close the policy gap?’, hosted by the Association for the Conservation of Energy (ACE) on 25th June in London. The main purpose of the event was to discuss the policy recommendations of the new Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) report ‘Warm Homes for All’.

Policy makers, practitioners and academics sat around the table to discuss the key questions around UK energy efficiency policy and how to speed up the uptake of retrofits. Jan Rosenow, former CIED researcher and one of the authors of the report, presented the policy context focusing mostly on the findings of last year’s UKERC and CIED policy briefing on ‘Unlocking Britain’s First Fuel: The potential for energy savings in UK housing’. The presentation emphasized the difference energy efficiency policy has made in the UK when it comes to carbon emissions and savings on energy bills, demonstrating how scrapping many of these policies halted progress.

Donal Brown, the lead author of the ‘Warm Homes for All’ report presented the main findings of the research, first with a presentation on the issue of retrofit business models, followed by one on financing and concluding with policy recommendations. He highlighted the fact that financing should be seen as an enabler rather than a driver of demand. Donal emphasised that there should be more attention paid to simplifying the customer journey for comprehensive retrofits and a move towards providing energy performance guarantees on the work. This would reduce the burden on the customer having to be the project manager of the process, narrow the gap between the predicted and actual impact of low carbon technologies installed during a comprehensive retrofit and also build trust in the supply chain.

Richard Twinn from the UK Green Building Council presented on the potential role of community social enterprises as intermediaries in retrofit and regeneration projects. As the CIED project on ‘Low energy housing innovations and the role of intermediaries’¬†also found, intermediaries can be key in making comprehensive retrofits happen, especially in an environment where there is little policy support. Intermediaries can be architects, building managers, social enterprises, builders, local authority officers, state agencies and community groups; carrying out a variety of activities such as providing impartial advice, providing a single point of contact or connecting actors through local networks (see our policy briefing for the full range of activities). Richard introduced a UKGBC project on retrofit-led regeneration in Manchester and explained how a community social enterprise can act as an intermediary representing the community and build capacity in the supply chain.

In between the presentations, participants shared their perspectives in roundtable discussions. A key question that has emerged is how can policy help drive demand? As the ‘Warm Homes for All’ report itself emphasises, participants agreed that to focus on removing barriers is the wrong approach as it assumes there is a demand in the first place. The lack of demand is in large part due to the fact that the general public have little knowledge of the potential for and benefits of retrofit. One of the participants mentioned the fact that in Germany, where the conditions are more favourable, including a skilled supply chain and government funding, retrofits were still not taken up. Is there a way we can get people to be interested in retrofitting their home? How do we go about it? Or is regulation the only way?

Participants highlighted the need for better information provision and marketing to let people know about the benefits. The key, they agreed, is to focus the message on comfort, well-being and health benefits of retrofitting, as energy efficiency will get little interest on its own. These campaigns should capitalise on people’s home improvement concerns regarding comfort, living standards and aesthetics which are often valued higher than cost savings.

How about people unable to make improvements to their homes, such as those living in the rented sector or those who struggle to even pay their bills? What is the best way to help the fuel poor? An idea suggested was introducing National Programme for Home Improvement rather than one focusing on energy efficiency only. It was pointed out that there is a need for a coherent set of policies that brings together direct engagement with low income households and energy efficiency.

According to the latest fuel poverty statistics published on Tuesday 26th June, more than 1 in 10 households in England are living in fuel poverty. Policy support to retrofit these homes should be highest on the agenda. But they should not be the only focus: ensuring that the energy performance of all homes is improved has to be high on the list of priorities for Government as it implements the Clean Growth Strategy.