Energy

Heat policy and advice – The future we need now

As noted in the first and the second post, and seen from recent news, heating our homes is a financial and social challenge for many. It is wrapped up in notions of fairness or lack of it, comfort and family, as well as the impact on the environment. Having moved from wood and coal to natural gas, heating our homes using gas boilers is still a major source of direct carbon dioxide emissions which in 2019 stood at 85 million tonnes, that’s 17% of total UK greenhouse gasses emissions. At 3.7 MtCO2e, the Residential Buildings sector accounted for 10% of Welsh emissions in 2019. Given how leaky and old houses are in Wales and the rest of the UK, it is no surprise we continuously feel cold while energy bills keep going up.

Decarbonisation of heat, that is removal of gas as its main fuel, is, therefore, one of the most important climate actions we can take. The UK Committee for Climate Changes noted that between now and 2050, emissions from residential buildings need to fall to zero at a rate of 3.4% per year based on current emission levels. But, as authors of The pathway to net-zero heating in the UK 2021 brief (UK Energy Research Centre) observed, the current pace of decarbonisation (largely due to efficiency programmes and regulation in the period 2002-2012), would get us to zero emissions from buildings in 235 years and fall far short of meeting the 2050 target.

Source: The pathway to net zero heating in the UK 2021 brief

Since the publication of the brief, there has been little progress in the UK with regards to decabonisation of heat. This month, the House of Commons Committee has issued a report setting out the considerable challenges that lie ahead in the transition to decarbonised domestic heating and makes recommendations about the steps which need to be taken for the Government to meet its own targets for the decarbonisation of domestic heating. It is one of those punchy reports full of data and evidence highlighting the slow and inadequate response of the UK central government in enabling decarbonisation. At the same time, the report offers hope and a fresh perspective on the matter of heat because it focuses on all aspects of heat discussed in this series.

On the eve of the report, Darren Jones, Chair of BEIS aptly noted that

As the Government decides on financial help for customers with the cost of their energy bills, they must also come forward with a replacement for the Green Homes Grant. Action is needed to improve insulation and energy efficiency in our homes and to step up the pace in delivering low carbon heating systems, at a lower cost to households than today. Ministers can’t simply leave this to the market – Government should tackle the cost of heating our homes in the round and bring forward joined-up policies that address these issues together. Decarbonising heat in our homes will require engineers who know how to install low carbon heating systems in every community across the country. The Government should work with industry and trade unions to support a low carbon heating apprenticeship programme and ensure existing workers get access to re-skilling courses that will support their transition to the new green jobs of the future.”

Although decarbonisation of heat is undoubtedly a complex process, the past developments (see the second post about the move from town to natural gas) tell us that socio-technological transitions can be made possible when multiple actors are fully mobilised. However, unlike earlier, the current transition is said to cost too much for taxpayers, the industry, and the government to muster. Does that mean that heat policy has hit the dead end? We do not think so. There is still hope to avoid multiple catastrophes if attention is paid to the physical, human, and environmental aspects of heat, as ignoring them will only derail any progress.

One important caveat though is that no geographical area is the same and so policies and national scenarios need to reflect that. For example, as part of the Zero2050 South Wales project, UKERC researchers worked with National Grid to investigate possible pathways for decarbonising heat in cities in South Wales, and noted that the share of different low carbon technologies under the same decarbonisation scenario is different for each city due to variations in housing stock and their characteristics in terms of the number of houses located in heat dense areas of the cities, and space availability of buildings.

What we have learned

Is it just about the technology? Is It about our habits? Feelings?  What can be done?

Here at Cynnal Cymru we recognise that technology alone really cannot solve all of the problems. It will solves some, but not all. We advocate that to reduce emissions and respond to climate change, policymakers need to engage businesses and communities to do their bit because knowledge and technology alone, however well delivered, does not shift behaviour. Knowledge and information campaigns work only if they are in tandem with initiatives that really engage the people most affected and allow them to see the changes that need to happen (for example in retrofitted ‘show homes’). In order to succeed, target audiences also need to trust those who are giving these messages and be able to see the benefits in making changes to their lives or their businesses. We also agree with the key message from commentators on this topic: first, insulation, then roll out of low carbon alternatives, while enabling (not just informing) the change in behaviour. Perhaps later other technologies can come in to support the decarbonisation. It is not one or the other, but rather more of many

This is why in our training, consultancy, and facilitation work we focus on actions, in particular, the steps organisations can take to enable others to do their bit. We also connect people with experts in their field, like the Active Building Centre, and point to information that can help.

Coming back to the question of what we can do about it

If you can afford insulation, do it immediately. The longer you leave it, the more heat you waste.  his might be easiest when thinking of renovating a house that you just bought or as part of a bigger home improvement project – but even if you find yourself in different circumstances, the benefits of action will outweigh the inconvenience.

If you cannot afford insulation you might be eligible for an ECO grant or localised grants. More information is available through Warm Wales.

If you are renting and you have no agency over insulation, check EPC standard for your home first because if it is low, you may ask your landlord to take new measures, or talk to council. Given that the report by the House of Commons Committee on decarbonisation of heat calls on Ministers to set out what measures are being considered to assist tenants who rent their homes in managing the transition to low carbon heating with their landlords, you may hopefully see changes in policy.

If you are working in the social housing sector, do not rely only on the provision of information to tenants to reduce energy consumption. Tenants need to be listened to, their concerns answered, and live examples of what’s possible through retrofit are needed in the community. If engaging your tenants in these conversations is challenging, consider reading the latest account by a journalist whose childhood was dominated by poverty, damp clothes, and stigma.

If you are a business and you are struggling paying bills, check the guidance by OFGEM as to what can be done immediately, but also use this challenge as an opportunity to plan your decarbonisation strategy.

If you would like to have a say about the Welsh Government’s proposals for the next iteration of the Warm Homes Programme, go to the cosultation page or attend workshops by National Energy Action (NEA) Cymru.

In closing we want to state our view: Nobody should feel cold and stigmatised for living in a leaky home and future generations should not be the ones fixing up the problem of heat. It is up to the current generation to fix this issue by calling on governments to deliver on their policies while doing all that’s in their power to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

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To switch on the heating, or not? – a surprisingly complex question

On cold, wet and windy days a bike ride to work seems impossible. Damp shoes and clothes seem too much to contend with and wrapping up in a blanket on a Zoom call seems too unprofessional. Whether in the office or at home, the temptation to reach for the electric heater grows as the gas prices are rising and central heating under-performs. “To switch on the heating, or not” is the question that many people across the Northern hemisphere are asking themselves.

Here at Cynnal Cymru we recognise these challenges as we too battle between the need for comfort and the feeling of warmth versus our knowledge about climate change. We know from the 6th Carbon budget by the UK Climate Change Committee (CCC), that direct building CO₂ emissions were 85 MtCO₂ in 2019, which account for 17% of total UK GHG emission. This was mostly from our homes (77%), followed by commercial buildings (14%) and public buildings (9%). The reason behind these figures is simple – it is our demand for hot water and heating. 74% of this demand in buildings is met by natural gas, and 10% by petroleum, with smaller amounts of other fuels such as coal and biomass.

To reduce total emissions, the ways in which we heat and use our buildings must be addressed. Recommendations from the CCC include changing behaviour (use less, lower the temperature), increasing building efficiency (insulation), and introducing low carbon heat (air source or ground heat pumps, hydrogen, low carbon district heating etc). The topic of heat then sits at the core of what we at Cynnal Cymru care about, not just professionally but personally too.

Over the last few months, we took part in an unintentional social experiment, because the building we are located in was undergoing a renovation of its central heating. We wore our thickest jumpers, we made many hot drinks, and despite all efforts, eventually, we turned to the electric heaters knowing perfectly well their economic and environmental cost.

This lack of heat got us talking about comfort, habits, energy, renewables, ways to keep warm, and insulation. We knew well that to reduce carbon emissions and to protect future generations, we need to do our bit around heat –which, in reality, may well mean getting used to feeling colder while waiting for a zero-carbon alternative to arrive. But how might this impact on those other fundamental human feelings and needs – for warmth, security and comfort? And what does this mean for the changes that we need to make as a society?

To delve deeper into these questions – and to explore the challenges and opportunities that Wales faces for warm homes and decarbonisation – Dr Karolina Rucinska, our Sustainability Advisor, set out on a research journey that will be shared over the coming weeks. We start with the basics – what is heat?

Heat is moving

If you are grumbling about how cold your house is despite having the radiators on, it is because heat, if it can escape, will always do so. However hard you try, the hot stuff will eventually become cold because the world we live in is governed by the uncompromising laws of thermodynamics. ‘Heat in motion’, Chris Woodford explains in Atoms under the floorboards (2016, Bloomsbury Publishing), ‘is another way to describe thermodynamics, which explains things like how cars waste energy, why power stations need such stupendous cooling towers, why cows have damp noses and dogs dangle out their tongues – and even why Arctic musk oxen spend so much time standing still in the snow.’

While the first law is concerned with energy loss, the second law of thermodynamics is concerned with the movement of heat, always from hot to cold and never the other way round. So, cold stuff is simply the lack of heat, while heat is stuff that always wants to go where there is less of it. Sounds weird, but effectively this is what is happening in our homes. Heat moves around and is, as it were, always on the go, so to make your home cosy, you are effectively trying to heat up every atom in everything that is inside. This takes huge effort and of course energy. If you are using different heaters that store heat and give it away at different rates, then you might wait hours if not days to feel cosy, while all that heat continues to slosh around and move.

This physical side of heat points to one thing: if you want to keep your house cosy, you must insulate it. Without insulation, heat will always escape regardless of how you warm it up. Before you look up low carbon alternatives to your boiler, invest in insulation.

If only it was that easy….

The UK has some of the oldest and most leaky housing stock in Europe. According to the Independent review on decarbonising Welsh homes, 32% of the Welsh housing stock was built before 1919, when there were no construction standards in terms of thermal performance. Research by the Cardiff University School of Architecture showed that the average energy performance (EPC) rating of the Welsh housing stock is a ‘D’ rating*, which raises the incidences of fuel poverty. 43% of people living in private rented accommodation are living in houses built before 1919.

The Guardian reports that, nine in 10 households rely on gas boilers, and lots of gas boilers need lots of gas: UK households consume more of it than almost all of their European peers, at around twice the EU average. With the price of gas going up and energy companies going down, heating leaky homes feels wasteful if they continue to be not insulated well enough to counter that physical side of heat. Between 2012 and 2019 the number of home insulation installations actually dropped by 95%. National Energy Action (NEA), the national fuel poverty charity, has noted that at that rate it would take nearly a century to properly insulate all of the current fuel-poor homes in the country. The statistics are eye-opening indeed. They are clearly telling policy makers and businesses that to significantly reduce carbon emissions from buildings by 2050, actions have to be taken now. But there is something about heat that speaks not to reason and data, but to feeling, an embodied feeling.

Heat is us

Like houses, our bodies too are governed by thermodynamics. Heat escapes our bodies and even after vigorous exercise, we eventually cool down. We give away heat, which we feel immediately, and we want to do something about it, immediately. But we cannot wait years and decades until housing stock is less leaky. We can put on the warmest jumpers to almost insulate our bodies as we would with our houses, but nothing will stop us from eventually feeling cold again. At some point we will need to, despite all that we know about the costs of gas and leaky houses, warm ourselves up. We are all taking temporary and readily available solutions simply because it is cold.

The problem though is that the embodied feeling is not experienced, which in turn perhaps influences our motivation and ability to act, for ourselves and others. Illness, age, cardiovascular system, place, and even norms, as research suggests, dictate how our bodies experience heat or lack thereof. If you have had a disagreement with your family or co-workers about the “right” temperature settings, then you will know what I am talking about.

Heat is suddenly a societal thing. It unites us as well as divides us. How one experiences heat or the lack of it, and what one does about it, also reveals something, unknowingly, about us. Which is why, heating our homes or not, it is about us too. It is a personal, deeply private and emotional thing. As researchers, Erin Roberts and Karen Henwood, from Cardiff University observed, heating is not just about thermal performance of a house, but about thermal comfort. It evokes the feeling of belonging, of feeling safe, of feeling looked after. It brings up the good memories of being with a family and sadly, bad memories of coming home after school with radiators off because parents, often despite being in work, cannot afford high energy bills. Heating can then become, unfairly, a social stigma and a social divide.

Heat is incredibly complex then, as it touches on our most intimate and most sacred parts of our lives, lives which, just like our housing stock, are governed by laws of thermodynamics. Our attention to these laws and insights, or lack of it, will influence future heating actions and policy.

Over the coming weeks, we will be sharing a series of articles to explore the challenges and opportunities it poses for equality, decarbonisation and social transformation.

*Properties are given an energy-efficiency grade between A and G, with A being the best – i.e., most energy-efficient – and G being the worst.

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Person with a mug staring into a window

When switching the heating on is still not an option for many

In 2019, 13.4% of households in the UK, that’s 3.8 million households, were classed as fuel poor. In Wales, households that spend more than 10% of their income on energy, would be referred to as fuel poor. The three main drivers behind fuel poverty are low incomes, the low energy efficiency of homes, and high energy prices. However, the picture is far more complex and challenging to analyse because, as research by Groves et al. suggests, fuel poverty is to with households being caught in between numerous disabling conditions. For example, households, where older people or people with disabilities live, may need to spend significantly more on space heating or on powering assistive technologies. Constraints on adaptability can also be because of the material fabric of homes. A lack of adequate insulation or of double glazing can significantly reduce the efficiency of heating systems, for instance. But constraints on households’ choices can also come from external conditions. These are often social in nature, such as the relationships between tenants and private landlords, or the use by utility companies of prepayment meters and higher tariffs for consumers on low incomes.   

Fuel poverty is not just about the inability to keep warm, but rather being unable to make a difference, which is the real issue here. People feel not just cold physically but they feel stigmatised. Heating and energy bills bring on anxiety, rather than comfort and cosiness. Providing households with information to reduce energy consumption are least likely to make an impact, this is because there are too many disabling conditions and therefore too much anxiety associated with this topic. 

To change one’s behaviour, there must be plenty of enabling conditions for the desired change to happen along with progressive policies. More on this point, in the third part of the All about heat series.  

Heat is environment  

Fur, wool, houses, wood and coal burners, warm food, and eventually central or district heating – these are the artifacts or, if you like, evidence of humans trying to stay warm. It is our history really – an epic effort to feel warm enough, to see while it is dark, and to put machines and cars into motion.   

In a brilliantly titled, Energies: An Illustrated Guide to the Biosphere and Civilization (1999, MIT Press), Vaclav Smil takes the reader on a journey through natural resources showing how they were used, what impact they had on the growth of cities, and environment. For example, pre-industrial civilisation depended on wood, straw, charcoal as raw materials to build houses and as material for smelting.  Here is how Smil described the scale of that demand. 

 “A large Wooden Age city in a colder climate (in Northern Europe or in North China) would have consumed at least 20–30 W/m2 of its built-up area, mainly for heating and cooking, and also for manufactures ranging from blacksmithing to firing of tiles. Consequently, the power density of sustainable forest growth in temperate climates was commonly equal to less than one and rarely more than 2 percent of the power density of urban energy consumption—and the cities required nearby areas anywhere between fifty to two hundred times their size to satisfy their thermal energy needs”. 

Throughout the centuries, the demand for the smelting of iron created many deforested landscapes. England’s early adoption of coke, Smil argued, is easy to understand: A single early eighteenth-century furnace consumed annually a circle of forest with a radius of about four kilometers.  He went on to say that, “if American ironmakers had not switched to coke after 1870, by 1900 they would have consumed annually enough forest to fill a square whose side would be the distance between Boston and Philadelphia”. 

But earlier centuries pale in comparison to the impact of coal and oil. The impact is to do not only with the emissions and pollution coming directly from the processes of extraction and burning, but it is also to do with the emission coming from all of the new sectors of industry and economy powered by the energy generated by coal, oil, and gas.

Domestic life has been transformed by gas and electricity, and it is really difficult to undo that transformation. As noted earlier, wearing lots of layers for long periods of time is not comfortable for us humans.  And yet, the idea of switching the heating and gas cooker on is relatively recent. No household would be able to do so, if the infrastructure was not built, or appropriate appliances were designed. In fact, in the 1960s the UK underwent an incredible project to convert appliances from town gas (manufactured gas from coal and oil) to natural gas (gas extracted from seabed and ground) and to fully establish it as a go-to solution for heating. The project involved converting 13.5 million domestic and 650 thousand commercial and industrial consumers and took 10 years to complete. Special training schools were established to train staff (engineers, installers, sellers, admin) to make the transition happen. It required incredible coordination, planning, and establishment of numerous organisations. The Office of the Budget Responsibility reports that moving 13 million properties to natural gas involved the 12 regional gas boards, parts of the industry (to make new appliances or the parts necessary to convert existing ones), contractors (to enter people’s homes and carry out the conversions), public relations (to sell the idea) and the public (to embrace it). The Government took a central coordinating role, with time nationalised Gas Council giving the state direct control of the required investment. It was not an easy project and as Stathis Arapostathis, Peter J.G. Pearson, and Timothy J. Foxon noted,  the conditions to change to different types of heating and regulatory regimes were enabled. So, to switch to low carbon heating alternatives or lower energy consumption, the processes must also be done such they enable everyone to do their bit. But, as the Office goes on to say, the costs of transitioning to net zero heat (heat pumps and hydrogen) are far greater than before.

In the next and the last post in this series, Dr Karolina Rucinska will turn to the role of policy in dealing with fuel poverty and decarbonisation before summing it all.

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Nest Nyth – Branding and messaging for a new fuel poverty scheme

As part of the new scheme Cynnal Cymru, along with partners, was commissioned to create a new brand mark and communication messaging.

Through a series of interactive workshops, the bilingual branding, Nest – Nyth, was created, a reassuring brand which was designed to give the target audience confidence in the scheme.

Nest was a word chosen by people in focus groups to describe how they feel about their home. It was developed together with the bird box branding which is easily identifiable, bold in colour and has the comforting wording ‘Making Wales Cosy.’

Nest offers free advice about:

  • Saving energy
  • Money management
  • Making sure you’re on the best fuel tariff for you;
  • And whether you are entitled to any benefits to boost your income

The scheme can be accessed by visiting www.nest.gov.wales or calling freephone 0808 808 2244

This project was commissioned by the Energy Saving Trust (EST) and was managed by Cynnal Cymru in collaboration with Climate Outreach and branding design agency Hoffi.

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