Lord Teverson: To reach net-zero and end fuel poverty, it’s essential we upgrade the energy efficiency of existing homes
The UK has one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe, instead of relying on energy companies to reduce emissions of fuel poor homes, we need a locally managed and properly funded national infrastructure, writes Lord Teverson.
First, some facts. We still have some 2.5 million families living in fuel poverty, and that’s just in England. If that’s not bad enough for a wealthy nation, 50,000 individuals die each year from what are rather clinically described as ‘excess winter deaths’. Not all are due to lack of warmth, but for a large number this will be a major contributory cause.
Then there is our energy industry. Despite our international leadership in carbon reduction, our power stations are still churning out over 40% of our electricity from fossil fuels – mainly gas. When it comes to heating our homes, we are wedded to gas in our towns and cities, and oil for rural dwellers.
So, it seems there is a long road ahead of us either to reach zero carbon, or the final abolition of fuel poverty.
In the old days we used to fret over the ‘energy trilemma’. That was back in Coalition Government times when our last major piece of energy legislation hit the statute book in 2013. The question of the day was how do you reconcile the three national energy objectives - decarbonisation, low energy prices, and energy security?
The problem then was a little like three-dimensional chess, but rather more difficult to play.
But the great news today is that the trilemma has melted away. Renewables are no more expensive than coal or gas. What’s more, the greater our renewables share, with our North Sea oil and gas reserves in rapid decline, the greater our energy security. It’s been a win-win-win. And it’s a lesson for us now – a serious net zero strategy can deliver, not conflict with, our other energy goals, not least ending fuel poverty.
In this case the magic ingredient is the rather unglamorous and oft-neglected factor of energy efficiency. Studies have always shown that energy efficiency is the cheapest way to decarbonise. But policymakers are always seduced by those more telegenic projects, whether it be off-shore wind farms, new nuclear, or Tesla EVs.
As a result, the UK has one of the most energy inefficient housing stocks in Europe. The Coalition Government and the Labour before it set a new-build zero carbon homes deadline for 2016. Tragically with the death of the Coalition in 2015, George Osborne cancelled the programme. It was an outstanding example of net-zero vandalism. So we are still building energy inefficient homes. The UK has a stock of 29 million houses only 1% of which meet the Energy Performance Certificate’s (EPC) A grade rating.
So the task is clear. To reach zero carbon our most cost-effective strategy is one of seriously upgrading the energy efficiency of our national housing stock, starting with the fuel poor. It’s not the only tool in the box, but it’s an essential one.
Of course, some work is already happening. The Government’s Energy Company Obligation, or ECO as it is better known, is one such programme. As the name suggests the scheme is run by the energy suppliers – which some just might see as putting the fox in charge of the chickens. The Government has a statutory target of moving all fuel poor homes to EPC band C by 2030, but the ECO budget is nowhere near up to the task.
Rather than a duty for energy companies the obvious key players are local authorities. And rather than the programme upping our energy bills – hitting those fuel poverty families most, it makes more sense to meet the cost through the public purse. So refitting our housing stock for a carbon free mid-century means a properly funded national infrastructure programme, managed locally.
The result – a housing stock fit for a carbon free 2050, and the end to fuel poverty. Simples!
Lord Teverson is a Liberal Democrat Member of the House of Lords.