Wednesday 18 December 2013

What does Energy Cost?

Where can you find authoritative data on energy prices?

The energy savings from solar heating is the main economic argument for choosing to install a system, and this will continue to be the case even with the imminent arrival of the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive in the spring of next year.  For solar PV systems the fall in cost of equipment and installation and the accompanying reduction in the Feed in Tariff means that own-use savings on electricity bills have become a much more significant component of the economic justification.
Energy prices have been changing rapidly, so it’s important for renewable energy businesses to have access to up-to-date, accurate and trustworthy price information to show to customers when modelling the financial benefits from their investment.

A quick survey of colleagues at a recent Solar Trade Association meeting produced the following list of resources.  Do you have any to add?  Please use the comments section below.

UK Government Statistics

There’s a wealth of energy statistics on the website, and the challenge can be finding the information you want.

By their nature, the statistics are backward-looking so often more than 12 months out of date.

Energy prices are often presented either as ‘average energy bills’ or stated as a percentage of 2005 costs.  The best source I could find was in the Quarterly Energy Prices publication, in which the following two tables show the unit price of energy:

Table 2.2.3 Average annual domestic electricity bills in 2012 for selected towns and cities in the UK with average unit costs

Table 2.3.3 Average annual domestic gas bills in 2012 for selected towns and cities in the UK with average unit costs


The Sutherland tables are a fixture of the energy industry, compiled quarterly since 1976 they show domestic energy costs heating and hot water costs across a range of standard house types across the UK.  The data is apparently used by government in preparing its own statistics, but there is a cost to accessing the data.

Boilerjuice is an online quotation website for heating oil.  It publishes average prices of UK heating oil:

Nottingham Energy Partnership

NEP publishes current average prices for electricity, gas, and heating oil together with many other fuels.  Also available are reports analysing trends over time.  This was the most relevant reference I could find for current energy prices.

Do you know of any resources you can share?  If so, please let us know in the comments section below.


Friday 6 December 2013

Domestic RHI - When can I join?

More clarity on legacy applications


If you have installed a qualifying renewable heat installation since 15th July 2009, you can join the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) when it starts next spring and collect seven years' worth of payments.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) published further details this week on the RHI that among other things outlines how applications from so-called 'legacy' applicants will be managed.  Application dates will be staggered as shown in the diagram above in an effort to prevent the administration of the scheme being overloaded.

Installations that did not receive a Renewable Heat Premium Payment (RHPP) voucher can apply from the day the scheme launches until the end of 12 months from launch.

Installations that received an RHPP voucher with an application date before May 2013 can apply from 3 months after the scheme opens for a period of 9 months.

All other installations (those that received an RHPP voucher with application date after May 2013) can apply from 6 months after the scheme opens for a period of 6 months.

Saturday 30 November 2013

How to Lower Energy Bills

The way the energy companies structure their tariffs encourages high consumption. 

Try to imagine a fee structure for gas and electricity that would encourage people to conserve energy. Forget for a moment how energy is delivered and what the costs look like for energy companies. We're not designing it to suit them. 

I suspect that you've come up with a scheme where the price of the energy you buy rises for each extra unit you consume, perhaps something like this.

A rising 'marginal cost' of energy would encourage investment in energy saving technologies

Energy companies have the technology to include information on your bills about how your consumption compares to similar properties around you, perhaps the price per unit could stay low until you exceed the average consumption in a comparison group. 

In this utopian vision, pricing signals would be incentivising people to invest in energy saving measures for their properties to reduce their energy use.  This would then lower the average energy use.  The level at which prices jump would fall over time, driving people to further reduce energy use. 

Burn baby, burn

Instead energy companies have structured prices to suit themselves. There's often a fixed "standing charge" which you pay even if you use no energy, helping ensure they recoup their fixed costs. Then there's a band at a higher price per unit for the first so many units, falling to a lower price per unit for all energy used above this level. 

If I had asked you to design a fee structure that encouraged high levels of energy consumption, you'd probably have come up with something like this. 

Which shouldn't be a surprise, really. 

We've left the fox in charge of the hen house.

The more you use, the lower is your average price per unit. The less well off, struggling to afford their bills and conserving the amount they use are paying the highest price per unit of any of us. 

Unsurprisingly perhaps,  energy companies structure our bills to reward higher consumption

Energy companies are being allowed to structure our energy bills to encourage us all to burn the planet and to discourage investment in energy efficiency.  

The current bluster about freezing prices temporarily or rolling back the 'green crap' is tinkering at the margins. (See my earlier blog - The State of the Debate).  A bold reformer would mandate an inversion of pricing structures to lower costs for the less well off and encourage us all to invest to use less energy. 

This would be market economics red in tooth and claw. Forget the Green Deal, forget Feed in Tariffs and Renewable Heat Incentives.  Forget all of the bewildering array of centrally planned, market distorting energy efficiency schemes.  Price energy use accordingly and watch it all happen based on millions of people doing what's right for them and their home. 

Wednesday 27 November 2013

Optical Properties of Solar Panels


All you ever wanted to know about Incidence Angle Modifiers…

When light strikes a transparent material, some of the light is reflected, some is absorbed on the way through and the rest is transmitted.  For low iron glass of the type used in solar panels with the light arriving ‘straight on’ (perpendicular to the surface) the figures are typically 8% reflected, 1.5% absorbed and 90.5% transmitted.

Light incident on a the clear cover for a solar panel is mostly transmitted, but some is absorbed or reflected
 Most of the light incident on a solar panel does not arrive perpendicular to the surface, but at some other angle as the sun moves across the sky over the course of the day and year.  The incidence angle is defined as the number of degrees between a ray of light and the line perpendicular to the surface.  As the angle of incidence increases so does the proportion of light reflected at a glass surface.  Since the light is not travelling straight through but at an angle with a longer path through the glass the proportion of light absorbed by the glass also increases.

As the light arrives at shallower angles, the proportion reflected increases

 The effect  light angle has on solar panel performance is quantified by a property called the Incidence Angle Modifier (IAM).  The IAM is measured and reported as part of the standard test procedure for solar panels and is defined as the efficiency of the solar panel at a given incidence angle divided by the efficiency when the light arrives perpendicular.  It takes into account not only the changes in transmission at the glass, but also any changes in reflection at the absorber.
For a flat plate solar collector, the IAM starts at a value of 1.0 when incidence angle is 0 and decreases as shown in the diagram as the incidence angle increases.

The incidence angle modifier captures the loss of efficiency as the angle of light changes from straight on

Evacuated tube type solar collectors have a different geometrical relationship with the light from the sun.  Only the light arriving on the centreline of the tube will arrive at the glass with an incidence angle of zero, as you move away from the centreline, the incidence angle increases and the so the proportion of light reflected and absorbed also increases.  This is partly explains why evacuated tube collectors often have a ‘zero loss efficiency’ (or optical efficiency) lower than that for flat plate solar collectors (the other factor being the gaps between the glass outer and the light absorbing surface inside).
Since a tube has circular symmetry, the proportion of light transmitted is unaffected by the direction the light is coming from.  The light passing through the outer glass wall for a single tube would be unaffected by the angle the light arrives from in the transverse direction (around the tube).

The geometry of a tubular solar collector gives higher reflection losses for light arriving straight on
but has circular symmetry, so the reflection doesn't change as the light angle changes
An evacuated tube solar collector is made up from a number of tubes installed side by side.  A gap is left between the tubes so they don’t touch one another and there is a gap between the outer glass and the inner light absorbing surface.  Consequently, a proportion of the light is not collected and passes between the tubes.

Tube collectors have gaps between each tube which cannot collect light

Some evacuated tube collectors have a tubular shaped absorber (so called Sydney Tubes or tube-in-tube collectors).  A feature of the geometry of these is that as the angle of incidence increases in the transverse direction (around the tubes), the absorber area increases compared to the effective area of a planar absorber – less light passes through the gaps. 

Tube collectors with tubular shaped light absorbing surfaces 'close the gap' as the light arrives at shallower angle

The transverse IAM for these products rises higher than 1.0 before falling to zero as the angle approaches 90 degrees. 

The IAM for a Sydney tube collector rises above 1.0 as the light arrives at shallower angles

All this is just another reason why you can't compare solar thermal panels by their simple gross efficiency.


Wednesday 20 November 2013

The State of the Debate

On the subject of energy bills our political masters prefer to treat us like children 

1. What a Grown Up Conversation about Energy Bills Looks Like


Electorate: "blimey, these energy bills smart a bit. I'm not very happy about that."
Government: "Yes, we can see why, prices for gas have doubled since 2005. There's a growing middle class in the developing world who want the same standard of living as us and fossil fuels are getting more expensive to extract.  I'm very sorry but we can't control the global price of energy."

Electorate: "are you saying that it's just going to keep on getting worse?"

Government: "no, we're saying that energy is going to get more and more expensive, but your bills are calculated by multiplying the cost of energy by the amount you use."

Electorate: "so you're telling us to share our bath water and wear two jumpers in winter?"

Government: "the UK has among the least energy efficient housing in Europe! perhaps it's time to start thinking about investing in your home. Why not install insulation or solar water heating to reduce your heating bills or make your own electricity with solar PV panels?  We have support schemes to help with the costs of these measures."


2.  What we get Instead

Electorate: "blimey, these energy bills smart a bit. I'm not very happy about that."

This Lot: " the energy companies tell me that it's all down to the green tariffs (which, by the way, the other lot brought in). We'll make the horrible bills go away for you, leave it to us."

The Other Lot: "No, no, no!  It's all down to those nasty profiteering energy companies.  Leave it to us, we'll make a law to stop price increases so those fat cats can't charge you so much money.”
It's time our politicians squared with us.  Go on, tell it how it is, we're all grown ups here, aren't we?

Sunday 10 November 2013

Heat and Power

Early signs of a rebalancing of the renewables market

The Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS) November newsletter was recently released, and a graph caught the eye of the solarblogger.  It is reproduced below.

The total number of MCS registered installers has been falling for some time.  Companies registered to install photovoltaic (PV) solar technologies dominate the numbers, and since the painful tariff adjustments of 2011, the number of registered companies has been steadily falling.  In the last 12 months the number of solar PV installers has fallen from around 4,300 to around 3,000.

Two features of the scheme may mean that even these figures are an over-statement of the number of active PV installation businesses.

First, since businesses renew annually with the scheme, a company decision to exit a market can take some time to feed through into the figures.  Falling registration figures will trail by an average of six months.

Second, renewal is significantly less expensive than a new registration with the scheme.  This asymmetry causes business to retain their MCS registration even when they are not actively working in the market “just in case things pick up.” 

Industry colleagues estimate that around 10-25% of MCS registered PV installers are not actively selling solar PV.

But none of this is news.

The thing that really jumped off the page for the solarblogger was that while the registered PV installer numbers have continued to fall, the total has actually risen since August 2013. 

There has been an increase in the number of businesses registering to install heating technologies such as biomass, heat pumps and solar thermal. 

Details of the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) were announced in July 2013.  This scheme pays households that install heat-generating renewable technology and will go some way towards rebalancing the UK government’s lopsided support for renewables.  A successful domestic RHI alongside a stable Feed in Tariff could deliver long term growth for both renewable heat and electricity.

It seems like industry might just be starting to believe in the RHI.

Tuesday 15 October 2013

Save the Merton Rule - Have Your Say

The Housing Standards Review Consultation closes in a week.  DCLG’s proposals will remove the Merton Rule, whereby Local Authorities can require developers to go beyond the Building Regulations on energy efficiency.  The Building Regulations themselves are not providing a pace of improvement to support renewable energy in new buildings and seem unlikely to do so for years to come.  We need to make our voices heard on this issue at DCLG.

Want to make a difference, but a bit short on time?  The solarblogger has helpfully done the hard work for you.

 Simply cut and paste the text below into an email and send it to:

Subject: Housing Standards Review Consultation

Dear Sirs

I wish to register my opposition to your plans to repeal the Planning and Energy Act 2008 before you have implemented Zero Carbon Homes.

Please carefully read the following three articles:

With kind regards,

Tuesday 1 October 2013

Solar Energy Redeemed

The Last Piece Falls into Place for the Domestic RHI

A hot prospect? 
Image courtesy Viridian Solar
MCS recently unveiled its new calculation methodology for predicting the energy benefits of solar heating, and its great news for the industry. The announcement was eagerly awaited not least because it will be the way payments are calculated under the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive.

What's Changed?

The previous version was based upon the government's Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP), and so is the new version, but with some rather important changes:

1.  The Number of Occupants

Arguably the single biggest factor impacting the solar heating energy yield is the amount of hot water used, and in domestic properties this is almost entirely down to how many people live in the house.

The previous version of the calculation followed SAP, which was originally developed for new build where the number of people using hot water in the building is not normally known.  The SAP calculation predicts the occupancy from the floor area of the property, with an increasing number of occupants as the property size increases.

Because this SAP calculated occupancy peaks at around three people for homes that are not abnormally high, it is underscoring the potential for solar energy greatly for the many households with more people than this. If this were to have been used for the RHI payments it would incentivise a solar installation in a mansion with a retired couple living in it over a smaller house with a family of five living there.  

The new calculation requires the solar installer to enter the actual occupancy of the property at the time of the installation, taking into account any part time residents (for example children that visit regularly but who don't count the house as their primary residence).  Installations will be subject to random audit by OFGEM, discouraging potential cheating, but for RHI deeming purposes, it was also decided to limit the occupancy to six full time equivalent.

This change is broadly neutral for smaller households of one or two people, and increasingly positive as the number of occupants increases. The new calculation will significantly boost the energy yield for larger households, rewarding those solar installations that deliver the highest energy savings. 

2.  Electric Showers

The SAP calculation assumes a certain hot water use per person. In the previous (2009) version, the hot water use was based on an average for all homes in the UK including those with an electric shower.  Electric showers are fed with cold water so don't use water from the hot water cylinder and this has the effect of lowering the hot water use in the UK average.

By separating out homes without electric showers, in the 2012 version, hot water use is boosted by around 30 per cent and the benefits from solar heating further increased.

Incidentally, this welcome change should see some of the daft (predominantly new build) installations disappear where solar water heating has been installed alongside electric showers.

3.  Backup Heater Efficiency

The previous calculation worked out the solar heat input to the hot water cylinder and this was the figure presented to the customer.  The new calculation recognises that the customer is more interested in their saving on energy bills, and this is not the same thing.  Why?  Because the boiler that would have heated the water if the solar system wasn't there works with an efficiency, so in most cases the fuel energy bought  is higher than the energy input to the cylinder.

For example, a boiler operating with 80% efficiency would need to burn 1,250 kWh of gas to produce 1,000 kWh of heat. (1,000/0.8 =1,250)

It turns out that backup heaters have a summer and winter efficiency. Most are less efficient in summer than in winter - energy overheads from starting up are a larger proportion of energy delivered when you're only heating water and not heating the whole house too. Of course, most solar energy is delivered in summer when the back-up heater is least efficient.

The calculation takes this into account and a "solar efficiency" figure is used to calculate the energy saving as well as the renewable energy. The figure is expressed as an "additional fuel saving" so should be added to the deemed renewable heat to arrive at the total energy saving.

4.  Irradiation

Where the previous version used a single irradiation for the whole of the UK, the new version divides the country into 21 regions (see my earlier article on SAP 2012). The UK average remains the same, but some regions are lower than the average and some higher.

In addition, the irradiation is calculated for the absolute angle and orientation of the panel instead of using a look up table. 

5. Cylinder standing losses

A standing loss for the cylinder is added to the hot water demand increasing the total heat load that the solar system can contribute towards.

6. Other Minor Changes

The second order heat loss coefficient for the solar panel performance is taken into account.

Homes designated water efficient under Approved document G have their hot water demand reduced by 5%

Believe it or not, there are solar thermal panels out there with efficiency lower than the SAP default. A loophole where these could use the SAP default values has been closed.


The Effect of the Changes


Let's run a few examples through the previous and new calculations. To keep things simple, we'll use the same high quality solar thermal panel for each situation, as well as keeping the shading (none or very little) orientation (south) and pitch (30 degrees) the same for all options.  We’ll also locate the panels in Sheffield (which receives the UK average irradiation) and remove electric showers from the house.  We'll assume the house has a modern condensing gas boiler.

For the previous calculation, I have used a house size of 85 m2, an average sized town house with three bedrooms.  For the new calculation, a range of occupants between two and six is considered, with a panel area and cylinder size chosen appropriately.

The previous calculation ignores the actual number of people who live in the house and uses 2.7 residents in all cases, a figure derived from this floor area.  The results highlight the way that the previous calculation under-sold the benefits of solar in situations where more people live in the property.

In addition, the energy saving presented to the customer was the solar heat added to the cylinder, ignoring the efficiency of the boiler.  The new calculation takes the boiler efficiency into account. 

The new calculation gives energy savings between 50% higher and 142% higher than the old calculation.  The deemed renewable heat is calculated to be between 14% and 85% higher.

Many solar installers would have been disappointed by the tariff level of 19.2p set for solar heating under the forthcoming domestic Renewable Heat Incentive.  This improved calculation method provides just the boost that solar heating needs, and radically changes the economic attractiveness of solar heating within the domestic RHI.
The announcement of the RHI deeming calculation for solar heating is the final piece in the jigsaw.  Finally, solar installers can get out there and start presenting the financial benefits of the domestic RHI to potential customers.  In fact with a £600 upfront grant available for installations before the start of the scheme, there's every reason to install solar now.

Wednesday 18 September 2013

Information is Beautiful

Why the solar thermal industry should embrace data logging

by guest blogger Ben Whittle

Who is this person that the Solarblogger has invited to wax lyrical on the rather un-sexy subject of data that you have never heard of before, I hear you ask?

Some might say my claim of authority to write on this subject is sketchy at best: I’ve only lived with and monitored a solar thermal system for less than 6 months, and I have only seen data from a few installations ever. But maybe that is exactly why it is a subject that needs discussing in the solar thermal industry… because I have been installing and designing solar thermal systems for around 10 years and I can count the number of installations I’ve seen that have monitoring on them on one hand, (and one of those installations is my own). And when I say we need more data-logging, I don’t mean turning on the heat quantity measurement function, I mean proper data-logging: measuring temperatures at the top, middle and bottom of the store, pump on and off times, boiler trigger times, heat measurement, the lot.

Over all the years I have worked in this industry I have seen a lot of mistakes made in designing and installing systems (and some of them were my own mistakes). How do I know they were bad designs and mistakes? Because I had to go and fix them. How can we possibly move on as an industry if we can’t try and make some sense of what mistakes were made in the past, and learn from them? Of course we have made leaps and bounds in some areas: the quality of the panels, plumbing, tools and fittings we are using (thank the lord for press fit pneumatic tools and filling pumps!), the MCS standards, the list goes on. OK, great, we can install stuff quickly and efficiently and it doesn’t leak… what’s the next step? Actually measuring how the systems are performing. Because I can tell you in the UK we have a long way to go in terms of getting our solar thermal systems to perform as well as can be achieved as seen across mainland Europe and America , and keeping track of performance is the only tool that can help us do it.

Now of course there are all sorts of reasons as to why we don’t normally achieve performance levels of a high quality Austrian installation… predominantly that is because the average UK house doesn’t have space for a 500-1000litre hot water store in the 700mm wide airing cupboard. But let’s put aside the things we can’t tackle and talk about the things we can.

To my knowledge there are only 2 or 3 solar thermal trials of any significance that have been published in the UK on solar thermal, and probably the best of these was conducted by the Energy Savings Trust three years ago. For those that are interested it’s called “Here Comes the Sun – A field trial of solar hot water systems”. It’s a great document, short (24 pages) and to the point. It tells you what you need to know – the biggest impact on solar thermal performance has nothing to do with evacuated tubes or concave reflector plates or low emissivity glass. But how did they reach those conclusions? By measuring things and writing it down – and, you know, analysing it and stuff.

And that is where we need to be going as an industry – looking at data, working out how to improve things, and changing our behaviour to suit. Not only will measuring performance allow us to understand the mistakes we make, it can inform our design decisions and help us to improve everything we do… and of course there are other benefits to consider as well.

1: Data logging is another chance to “add value” to your installation work. It’s a slightly more expensive controller, or an additional bit of kit to be sold, and a chance for your geekier clients to play with a spreadsheet or two. Now if you haven’t had a great experience installing solar thermal and the thought crossing your mind right now is “yeah right, and the customer is going to use this data to beat me with like a stick when it all goes wrong,” then I really am talking specifically to you. Because there are thousands of systems out there in the world that do perform absolutely perfectly, and as an installer you need to understand how they work.

2: It’s a chance to fault find, and take the correct action if things do go wrong, instead of guessing.

3: It will help you understand how people interact with their solar systems.

4: It can help get you out of trouble if the cause wasn’t your fault. One of the few logged systems I have seen was a school pool system that was constantly stagnating and losing pressure after being installed. When the data card was posted back to the company I worked for, it didn’t take long to diagnose the fault. The college maintenance man had been turning the system off at the main switch on a regular basis (even though it had a sign on it saying “Solar – do not switch off”). We were even able to re-program some of the settings using the data card and send it back to them in the post to plug back in. That’s quite an unusual feature specific only to the controllers made by Watts industries as far as I know, but a pretty handy one for commercial systems.

Just imagine what could be possible if we all took this a bit more seriously – imagine coming in to your office on a hot summer day in a few years from now after installing a 1000 systems across your local area, to find a couple of automatically generated emails where your data server had logged some de-pressurisation warnings at a couple of properties. You could then log on to watch some live system data to check them, and dispatch a maintenance team to fix them before your client was even fully aware there was a problem. All part of the regular maintenance contract you sold them at the time of installation…. There is no reason why this fantasy couldn’t come true, and it’s up to us to make it happen. It is already happening in the world of heat pumps.

As an aside, maintenance contracts are another area I think we need to explore further as an industry. I recently saw a report suggesting a very significant proportion of people who buy solar thermal systems would be happy to pay more than £100 for regular servicing, another possible revenue stream for any installation business.

Red=panel, Yellow = top tank, Blue = mid tank, Grey = low tank
R1 = solar pump on, Rs = boiler on
My own system does not have anywhere near enough data yet. I’m currently measuring temperature at 3 heights in the store, the solar controller also controls my boiler so I can also measure how frequently the boiler is getting activated, and I’m also getting estimated energy yield using the heat quantity function on the controller and estimated flow rates. In an ideal world I hope to add a water meter to measure my hot water usage, and a proper electronic flow meter for the solar controller to measure the glycol flow rates, and an electrical meter to measure electrical consumption. But I must be doing something right because I am currently hitting 2100kWHours of energy from my installation, after being installed for less than 6 months. And thanks to the EST solar study I know that the average UK installation is usually generating 1500kWH in a whole year… and I would never have found that out if I hadn’t bothered to log the data. Of course that generation figure could be inaccurate, and I mean to find out if that is the case by getting more and more accurate data over time.

I should probably qualify that performance figure by pointing out that I do not have an “average” UK system, so I’m comparing apples with pears… but I hope to explore that issue in a further blog post, looking into hot water storage, and how we might start improving solar thermal performance in the UK.


Sunday 8 September 2013

A Million Missing Low Energy Homes

The "Housing Standards Review" is set to eliminate a crucially important driver for renewable energy uptake in the UK and the way the government has gone about it is an absolute disgrace.

Solar panels on new homes - soon to be a thing of the past?

In a recently launched consultation, the Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) has revealed its intention to halt a practice where local authorities can require property developers to build to an energy efficiency standard higher than the current building regulations or insist on renewable energy (the so-called Merton Rule).

The background to the Housing Standards Review is that there has been a proliferation of overlapping (and sometimes conflicting) technical standards created in recent years, and local authorities are imposing a variety of these on developers, creating an unnecessary regulatory burden.  

DCLG convened a series of working groups covering eight thematic areas, one of which was energy.  The Energy Working Group concluded that the government should scrap rules that allow local decisions on the energy efficiency of new construction and rely solely on the national Building Regulations to drive future improvements in new build housing.

The justification for this change is that the Building Regulations are ‘moving towards Zero Carbon Homes’ by 2016 so there’s no need to have these alternative requirements – you can’t get better than zero carbon, right? 

While this argument is superficially persuasive, as soon as you scratch the surface you quickly find otherwise – let's take a look at what’s been happening at DCLG since the ‘Greenest Government Ever’ came into power:

  • New Social housing was intended to be at zero carbon by 2013, paving the way for the commercial developers to follow.  This was scrapped and social housing is now built to the same energy performance as commercial housing.
  • The definition of a ‘Zero Carbon Home’ has been diluted so that electricity use from plug-in appliances is misleadingly not included, making it more like ‘30% Carbon Home’
  • The 2013 building regulations are late and will not be implemented until well into 2014, allowing at least 100,000 homes to be built to a lower energy efficiency.
  • These new regulations represent only a tiny (6%) improvement on the previous ones for energy efficiency, when a 50% improvement was required to have any realistic chance of delivering 30% Carbon Homes by 2016.
  • The ‘Allowable Solutions’ consultation may allow developers to pay a tax instead of building genuinely low energy properties.

(See my earlier blog on progress towards Zero Carbon Homes here)

If you had a suspicious mind, you might suspect that DCLG held back on the spectacularly unambitious 2013 building regulations to allow the Housing Standards Review to reach its conclusions based on a belief in government intentions to actually deliver Zero Carbon Homes in 2016, a belief that would have been difficult to continue to hold once the 2013 regulations were revealed.

If you were also of a cynical disposition, you might predict that DCLG is going to announce that it will put back Zero Carbon Homes to 2019 (just keeping within the 2020 deadline in the EU Energy Performance of Buildings Directive), but only after leaving the 2016 target in place long enough to use it to justify killing off local rules for higher energy performance and renewable energy.

Houses are not built to new regulations immediately; it takes many years until granted planning permissions turn into completed homes.  If Zero Carbon Homes is delayed until 2019, it will be 2022 before large numbers of homes are built to this level of performance.  DCLG will have created a ‘Lost Decade’ and a million homes built with unnecessarily low energy efficiency.

Economics not your Strongest Suit?

The ‘Impact Assessment’ for the changes proposed in the consultation claims a net benefit to the economy of more than £0.5bn.  It is claimed that £93m would be saved over the next 10 years by abolishing the Code for Sustainable Homes and £195m from abolishing local targets for renewable energy.

So that’s around £30m a year.

To put this saving in context, have a look a the turnover and profit of just the top three commercial housebuilders in the UK:

The Impact Assessment claims that this £30m/year is the ‘net benefit to business’, but what it actually presents is the net benefit to property developers, who no longer have to pay for environmental technologies or renewable energy. 

An Impact Assessment should assess the benefit to the economy, not one favoured sector

The businesses that would have supplied environmental technologies to help these new homes outperform the Building Regulations will be adversely affected, but the Impact Assessment takes no account of this.  Nor does it attempt to estimate the cost of improving these low efficiency homes later on. 

The Impact Assessment in support of the proposal is flawed and should be repeated taking into account the net effect of the changes on the whole economy.

Not Helping Anyone…. Except Rich Landowners

If building regulations are clearly signalled in advance and consistently applied, then developers can decide how much to pay for land with certainty about their build costs.  So the only thing building to a higher environmental standard will do is slightly reduce the massive windfall that landowners get when they convince a local authority to allow them to sell to property developers.

Conversely, if building costs are reduced then developers, in a competitive market for building plots, will bid up the value of land to a point where their profit margins are maintained. 

I’ve already written about this, often overlooked issue here: 'Who Pays for Greener Homes?'

Surely this isn’t the government’s intention?  To hamper the development of a clean energy industry and land the country with extra costs for upgrading homes that could have been built to a higher standard of energy efficiency – all so that a few rich landowners get a bit richer.  Not this government, surely?

Whatever Joined up Government Looks Like, it Ain't This

At the same time that DCLG is busy paving the way for a million low-efficiency homes, another government department has to shell out taxpayers’ hard-earned money to financially support people in improving the energy efficiency of existing homes.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is spending your money trying to convince people to upgrade the energy performance of their homes.

And boy is it hard work.

It is simply much easier and cheaper to install energy efficiency into a new home as it’s built rather than doing it later once someone is living in it.  It’s ‘common sense’ isn’t it?  It’s so much simpler to do it properly the first time than have to come back and do it all again later.

Compare the cost of putting thicker insulation into the wall as its built with the cost of fixing more insulation to the outside of a building, rendering it, and re-setting all the windows.

Or the hassle of getting a rig into your garden to drill a bore hole for a ground source heat pump – knocking down walls, tearing up your beautiful lawn – compared to doing it when it’s already a building site.

Or the cost of replacing all your radiators, - suitable for a gas boiler, but not big enough for an air source heat pump - compared to installing suitable ones in the first place.

Consider the cost savings from installing solar panels in the roof at the same time as the scaffolding is there for the roofers to tile the roof.

You get the idea.

DECCs incentives such as the Feed in Tariff, Renewable Heat Incentive, and Green Deal need to be set at an even higher level than simply supporting the extra costs to overcome people’s aversion to turning their house upside down to do the improvements.  (So called barrier costs).

The lack of progress in driving up standards in new homes is going to cost the country more in the long run.

How to Fix This

A situation where each and every local authority makes up its own environmental targets is an unnecessary burden on developers.  In my own business, we’ve helped many house builders discharge local authority renewable energy requirements in all parts of the country, and while they are all similar they are also all ever-so slightly different.  There is definitely a case for simplification.

However, the Building Regulations are not providing a pace of improvement that is sufficient.  Nor is the Zero Carbon Homes ‘end point’ adequate – the definition is too weak and proposals to allow property developers to ‘buy’ their way to Zero Carbon will result in homes that are little improved over today's.

The Building Regulations are not some 'gold standard' for energy efficiency that it is impossible to improve upon, they are nothing more than a minimum standard, a lowest common denominator.  Local authorities should be encouraged to exceed this minimum standard  where is is viable, and the assessment of viability should be a local decision in keeping with the DCLG's own Localism Act.

The route to simplification is not for central government to impose a one-size fits all, lowest common denominator standard, but instead to provide a limited menu from which local people can choose.  Fortunately the hard work has already been done because this is a description of the system in Scotland.  Here the building regulations have a special section with a limited number of alternatives to the minimum standard (Bronze) so providing local choice and simplification of regulatory burden for developers at the same time.

Why not adopt or adapt this sensible Scottish idea for the rest of the UK?

How to make your views known to DCLG, with template email can be found here