Energy Efficiency: The Key to Net Zero

James Seabridge analyses the importance of energy efficiency in reaching Net Zero, responding to measures from the Government’s Energy Security Strategy. 

A clash of heads between Number 10 and the Treasury is reportedly to blame for the lack of funding being allocated for schemes to make buildings more energy efficient. The UK Government recently released the Energy Security Strategy to mixed reviews, and the lack of concrete support for energy efficiency left policy wonks and energy strategy experts clamouring for more. 

This was a missed opportunity as globally the heating of homes and workspaces makes up nearly half of all energy consumption and 40% of all energy related carbon dioxide emissions. Dealing with the climate crisis simply is not possible unless heating becomes carbon neutral.

Retrofitting properties to be more energy efficient and replacing gas boilers with electric powered heat pumps are the two most viable solutions for this. While the newly announced Boiler Upgrade Scheme and the slashing of VAT on energy saving materials are clearly positive steps, more is needed to help people transition to zero-carbon heating. The scheme gives anyone who installs a heat pump a grant of £5,000-£6,000 and provides much needed financial support.

However, there is no financial scheme to help people insulate and retrofit their properties to the level required, a process that by the Government’s own estimates typically costs between £1,000 - £3,000. Even with the savings from the VAT cut, this cost simply is not viable for a large portion of the population, especially as the cost-of-living crisis escalates.

The majority of homes in the UK need some form of retrofitting, such as cavity insulation or radiator upgrades. Without financial support from the Government, the much-needed widescale retrofit of UK houses will struggle to get off the ground.

With the support from the Government, efficient heat pumps have now reached a cost parity with gas boilers over their lifetime. Added to that, installing a heat pump in an insulated house can save the average household around £260 per year. These savings will only increase as gas becomes more expensive and the UK’s planned ‘rebalancing’ of the cost of electricity in energy bills is introduced. 

Installing a heat pump without first having the required level of insulation, however, can minimise their benefits, and in extremely draughty houses can even increase your energy bill. The boiler upgrade scheme will help those who can afford to transition, but those who most need to save on their energy bills will be stuck paying the ever-increasing gas prices. 

Government needs to remove the roadblocks to carbon neutral heating and the cost of retrofitting is most definitely one of those. If the Government wants to help reduce energy bills as they claim to do, facilitating the transition to carbon free heating is the most effective way of doing so.

Moving to this carbon neutral model will also drastically increase energy independence and reduce our reliance on the fluctuating price of imported fossil fuels. Wide Scale heat pump installation in conjunction with renewable electricity would completely cut dependence on imported gas to heat our homes. 

The health benefits of this policy only boosts the argument for its implementation. Burning fossil fuel for heat as we currently do increases local air pollution, which kills tens of thousands a year in the UK. As heat pumps run on electricity they would improve air quality, especially in heavily urbanised areas. With gas boilers there is also the danger of gas and carbon monoxide leaks and the health risk that brings, whereas heat pumps do not contain gases that can leak into your home.

Carbon free heating is the most realistic long-term solution for hitting Net Zero, reducing energy bills, achieving energy independence, and many others. The sooner we embrace and invest in this, the sooner we reap the benefits. We are heading in the right direction, but we need to move faster if we are to achieve our ambitious, but absolutely essential, targets. 

James Seabridge works in environmental campaigning, specifically focusing on energy policy. He is an active member of Labour and tweets at @jmseabs.

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