Getty Images / WIRED
Homeowners of draughty dwellings rejoice: chancellor Rishi Sunak is handing you up to £5,000 – double for the poorest households – to cover two-thirds of the costs of green upgrades to your properties. So no more turning the heating on in spring, or least that’s the idea.
The Green Homes Grant, announced on July 8, isn’t exactly new: it’s an extension of a previous much-maligned Green Deal, launched by the government in 2013. That deal was supposed to have been a boon for the home improvements industry, leading to an uptick in smart, installation projects. But by the time it was brought to an end in 2015 (before being resurrected in a private capacity in 2017), only 14,000 households had applied. Not only was the application for it criticised for being complicated, but homeowners were essentially taking out loans as the cost of any home improvements was added to their energy bills. This time around, the loan element has been scrapped.
Carrying out improvements to UK homes makes sense – after all, research shows that we boast the draughtiest houses in Europe. However for many, simple upgrades, such as insulation, dry lining and double glazing, can be no more than a sticking plaster for far more serious problems. For example, building regulations require all new builds to pass an air tightness test. A 2017 paper by University College London researchers, which analysed more than 144,000 homes, found that there were a number of ways developers could get builds approved, such as temporarily sealing gaps with mastic without actually constructing them to be airtight. Those quick fixes are likely to lead to homeowners paying the price in the form of future remedial works and even a decrease in property value.
Experts are sceptical about whether the new Green Homes Grant is addressing the right problems. “There’s the question of funding being allocated for insulation as opposed to tackling the use of gas boilers. They arguably present a far more pressing environmental concern,” says Dr Chris Roberts, assistant lecturer at Birmingham City University’s School of the Built Environment. He argues that the scheme has been designed with job creation in mind rather than environmental concerns or addressing fuel poverty. “Also, much like the installation of double glazing on older housing stock, retrospective insulation can have a negative impact on a building in terms of water ingress [damp] and cold bridging [condensation]. Are homeowners going to be financially assisted to remedy any effects of modifications should they arise, particularly those considered the poorest households?”
The £2 billion funding allocated by the UK government is around 15 per cent of the £13.5bn pledged by France and a mere 5.5 per cent of the £36bn financial support being provided by Germany for similar initiatives. And while a grant of £5,000 may sound generous, it isn’t going to get homeowners far. Ground source heat pumps are often touted as an energy efficient alternative to gas boilers, but installing one of these pumps can leave you £20,000 out of pocket. And if you are hoping to install innovative systems like Energiesprong and PassiveHaus, both of which maximise air flow and thermal comfort, think again: designed into buildings retrospectively, they can set you back tens of thousands more.
The Green Homes Grant money may have been better off being centralised in a more savvy way rather than distributed between households, taking lessons from the likes of France, Germany, Denmark and Sweden.
These four countries have been big adopters of district heating networks, which can deliver heat to a whole city via a central plant and a network of underground pipes rather than requiring homeowners to buy and maintain a boiler. A network has a low carbon footprint because it can capture and reuse waste heat from buildings and also incineration plants.
“Heat networks can deliver decarbonisation with little disruption to individual homeowners. They achieve this by providing an opportunity to exploit larger scale, renewable and recovered heat sources that can’t be accessed at the individual home level,” explains Lauren Mason, product manager at German heating appliance manufacturer Viessmann. She says that government analysis suggests between 14 and 20 per cent of UK heat could be generated via networks by 2030, but for the UK to make this change successfully, it’ll need to look at other countries that have made it work.
“In Denmark, infrastructure has evolved organically over the years to a mix of biofuels, waste and renewable options, and now two-thirds of homes are heated this way [by networks],” she says.
According to the International Energy Agency, $6bn (£4.77bn) a year is pumped into district heating pipeline infrastructure alone across Europe. The four countries mentioned are responsible for two-thirds of this investment.
While rolling out a district heating network for the majority of the UK would require a much bigger cash injection than £2bn, it would help shave more off individual homeowners’ energy bill than insulating a few walls or fixing some air leaks would. The annual cost of running on district heating is around a fifth lower than using an individual gas boiler.
The Green Homes Grant money may not get you far, but creating your own energy efficient palace doesn’t have to cost the earth. You can still take incremental, low cost steps towards reducing your carbon emissions and energy bills. It might sound obvious, says Tom Greenhill, partner and senior engineer at the engineering consultancy Max Fordham, but invest in a thermostat that you can control with your smartphone and a smart meter with a digital display – the latter will help you identify the biggest energy-guzzling culprits. “I got a smart meter in lockdown and realised how much energy my wife’s coffee machine was using heating up cups all night. I’ve since bought her a better one that switches itself off. Thankfully, the coffee’s much better too,” he adds.
Sian Moxon, senior lecturer in architecture and sustainability at London Metropolitan University, hopes that the green homes grant isn’t only limited to technology and smart installations inside the home. She would like to see homeowners be able to spend the money on adding plants, promoting flora and providing space for wildlife. This, she adds, would help to “regulate the microclimate around a home, through shading and creating a wind buffer,” potentially reducing – although not eliminating altogether – the reliance on indoors heating and cooling systems in the first place.
For those stuck on the umpteenth floor of a concrete tower block, greenery is generally not an option. What’s more, it looks like the Green Homes Grant could leave a large number of the UK’s estimated 20 million rental tenants, many of whom live in tower blocks, out in the cold. “I’ve not heard of any provision for local authorities to provide similar improvements to council homes,” says Dr Roberts. “By offering grants to private homes owners only, the offering is steeped in ideological politics.”
Digital Society is a digital magazine exploring how technology is changing society. It’s produced as a publishing partnership with Vontobel, but all content is editorially independent. Visit Vontobel Impact for more stories on how technology is shaping the future of society.
More great stories from WIRED
☢️ Nine years on, Fukushima’s mental health fallout lingers
🦆 Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back
😷 Which face mask should you buy?
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get The Email from WIRED, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm sharp.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.