Complacency is the biggest energy challenge!

UK homes are amongst the least energy efficient in Europe which means that we are paying much more for our energy than we should. In this article, Matthew Lay of UNISON explains why a national energy efficiency programme is needed.

Photo credit: Simon Williams

In writing the recently launched UNISON energy report ‘warm homes into the future’, I began to really appreciate the urgency of the energy challenges we all face in the UK. These challenges are not simply the need to address the disgrace of fuel poverty but also include the need to address our climate change obligations and deal with the broader concerns of energy security as we look at the recent troubles in the Ukraine and the Middle East.

Linked to those issues we should recognise that failing to instigate the national programme of domestic energy efficiency measures UNISON prescribed in its report, represents a huge opportunity cost when the macro economic implications are analysed.

No other programme of infrastructure works would deliver the huge economic boost in terms of sustainable jobs and money saved in almost every UK household. If it sounds a bit too good to be true I would urge you to do your own research into the benefits of a national domestic energy efficiency programme. (see footnote)

The first thing to recognise is that those who advocate it like myself and many others see such a programme as a key national infrastructure priority to be judged against programmes like HS2 and the development of Hinckley Point C. When looked at in this light it is easier to see why we become a little evangelical about the benefits such works would bring.

The UK is unprepared

The problem has often been that the focus (of energy programmes) has been quite narrow and so the resources allocated relatively small. The benefits have always been projected that only the poorest households gain something, so its political advantage is neutered. It has always been far more popular to talk about increasing energy supply than managing energy demand. So it is against that backdrop we begin to debate what is a far more substantial issue than many realised.

My generation like no other has benefited from a cheap source of energy which revolutionised how we heat our homes and cook our food in the UK. The development of North Sea Gas was a huge game changer in its day but despite a recognition back then that in time this source of supply would start to run out, we did very little to prepare for this eventuality.

In 2020 we are likely to be importing over 70% of the gas we need and this imported gas will be less price stable. If only we had used some of the huge returns from North Sea Gas to invest wisely we would not be in the position we are today, with UK homes amongst the worst in the developed world for wasting energy and consequently the most vulnerable to price increases as we have seen over recent years.

Complacency

Years of having some of the lowest energy prices in Europe especially when it came to gas, instilled a level of complacency in policy making that will come to be seen as one the great mistakes of our time. Still it is not too late to save the day and in doing so contribute our bit to saving the world.

It is a national scandal that average UK homes lose three times more heat than homes in Sweden due to the poor insulation or that 15.9% of the UK population live in what is classed as a ‘leaky home’ with damp walls/floors/foundations, rot in window frames or a leaking roof.

It is certainly not acceptable that in England alone 6.72 million homes fall into the lowest three bands (E, F & G) of the Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating scheme and only France has poorer performance in the retention of heat by a buildings fabric when measured using the ‘U’ value assessment.

Ambitious programme

So to address this UNISON is advocating an ambitious programme of works to ensure every UK home meets an EPC Band C rating by 2030. This programme would include;

  • a free EPC assessment delivered to every UK home on a door to door/community by community basis,
  • free remedial works for low income householders (£10k cap)
  • interest free loans for remedial work for middle/higher income householders.

This blanket approach to the approach delivers economies of scale but importantly ensure mass coverage with its associated macro gains.

Such a programme would virtually eradicate fuel poverty, significantly reduce overall gas consumption, create over 130,000 jobs, reduce carbon emissions and increase economic growth.

Although there would be significant up-front cost (much of which is already in the system) the longer term prognosis is that such a programme would be cost neutral or even revenue positive when we look at what happened with the KfW programme in Germany. Importantly such a programme when placed side by side with other big infrastructure projects stands above the others in value returned pound for pound and would be the most optimum use of public resources.

So let us shake ourselves out of the complacency that has bedevilled us for far too long. A complacency that remains despite the realities we face living in the UK. For once let us take a positive step forward and address not just today’s problems but also tomorrow’s challenges.

Footnote: Publications by the Institute of Public Policy Research, Cambridge Econometrics, Verco, Association for the Conservation of Energy, Energy Bill Revolution, Consumer Focus and the International Energy Agency, will provide the reader with a good and detailed understanding of all the issues at hand.

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