Retrofitting homes: the forgotten key to achieving net zero

“In the long term, retrofitting homes and switching them to renewables will cost less than not doing it and letting London and the rest of the country face the toll of the climate emergency.” Andree Frieze, Green Councillor for Ham, Petersham and Richmond Riverside, makes the case for a nationwide retrofitting programme.

Solar panels
Andree Frieze

One of the biggest challenges we have to tackle for achieving net zero is domestic housing, as it accounts for around 20 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions. To reduce carbon emissions we need to switch all energy and heating to clean fuels, plus poorly insulated homes must be retrofitted with insulation to waste less energy and cut energy costs.

Yet, rather than focussing on this, the Government continues to invest in fossil fuel extraction. In March 2021 it announced it is giving new licences for oil and gas drilling in the North Sea. It justified this by saying it has given the sector targets to reduce carbon emissions by 25 per cent by 2027 and including £10 billion investment in hydrogen production and £3 billion for a technology called carbon capture, usage and storage – where carbon emissions are either turned into other products such as plastics or buried.

But, the point is the Government is still supporting the extraction and burning of fossil fuels when it should be investing heavily and quickly in renewables instead. Bringing back feed-in tariffs for solar panels would be a huge start. It was such a blow to the renewables sector when George Osborne cut this as Chancellor of the Exchequer. This is no doubt partly why London has one of the lowest numbers of solar panels on its roofs across the UK.   

Despite the lack of government support, some parts of London are switching to solar. Last year the City of London corporation signed a £40 million power purchase agreement to buy all the electricity produced by a new-build 95,000-panel solar farm in Dorset for 15 years. The solar plant will have the capacity to power the equivalent of 15,000 homes, and will provide over half the City Corporation’s electricity, saving it £3 million in energy costs and helping it reach its carbon zero target of 2040 – a full 10 years earlier than the Government’s.

Transport for London is planning that all of its electricity will be supplied by renewable energies by 2030, after pressure from Green Party Assembly Member Caroline Russell. This is a big deal as TfL is one of the largest consumers of electricity in the UK as it uses the same amount of electricity as 437,000 homes per year. In 2019, Caroline Russell uncovered that only 0.01 per cent of TfL’s energy came from renewable sources, despite a target for rail services under the Mayor’s control to be zero carbon by 2030.

Furthermore, local authorities – like my own, Richmond – are declaring climate emergencies, many of them instigated by Green Party councillors and activists, and producing plans to decarbonise. Richmond Council is  now part of the Mayor of London’s Solar Together scheme: a group-buying programme that enables Londoners to install solar panels on their homes at an affordable price.

There are small positive steps at a local and regional level in London, but the Government needs to be leading on the path to renewables and retrofitting homes. Instead, it is failing to grasp the magnitude of the task. 

In the same month as the Government-approved new North Sea drilling licences, the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee produced the report Energy Efficiency of Existing Homes. It says the UK Government is failing to grasp the extent of the work that must be done to eliminate emissions from the use of energy in UK homes: “The task is colossal: in England alone, over ten million owner occupied homes and over three million private rented sector landlords need to upgrade the energy efficiency of their homes to become A, B or C rated by 2035 for the Government to achieve its climate aspirations. We consider the Government has significantly underestimated how much decarbonising our homes will cost, and it needs to get a grip on this now, before it is too late. Energy efficiency is an important precursor to low carbon heating and will put us on a least-cost path to net zero.”

The Conservatives pledged to spend £9.2 billion on energy efficiency measures in their 2019 manifesto, but only £4.1 billion has been announced. Retrofitting all residential homes across the UK will cost between anywhere between £35 and £65 billion. 

The cost is massive but it will create jobs and reduce fuel poverty for millions of people. However, the Energy Efficiency Association found there aren’t enough retrofit installers ‘in the whole of the UK to be able to deliver the Net Zero targets for one very large local authority’. We have thousands of jobs at risk from the coronavirus pandemic and others that need to be lost from carbon-intensive industries, such as oil and gas drilling, the car industry and airlines. 

Green Party policy includes a deep retrofitting of 10 million homes by 2030, on top of the insulation improvements for every home that needs it. The Government isn’t taking seriously the challenge it faces. Its much-publicised green homes grant scheme introduced last year produced only 20,000 of the planned 600,000 grants. Of the £2 billion in funding promised, less than half of it was spent this year and it is only giving £320 million next year.

This kind of paltry investment gives the wrong signal to businesses in the renewable and retrofitting sectors. Plus, in the long term, retrofitting homes and switching them to renewables will cost less than not doing it and letting London and the rest of the country face the toll of the climate emergency.