In the wake of the spring statement, the conversation must move from subsidies to efficiencies if we are to solve the energy crisis, says Thomas Lane 

Tom Lane cropped

Rishi Sunak’s spring statement might not have been so roundly condemned had David Cameron not said that the country needed to “get rid of the green crap” nine years ago.

Back in 2013, energy bills were also rising. So then-prime minister Cameron decided to save money by ending subsidies for renewable energy, changing planning rules so that it became almost impossible to build onshore wind farms and cutting home energy efficiency improvement subsidies.

The “green deal” was supposed to replace direct subsidies for energy efficiency improvements, with loans repayable from savings on energy bills, but the scheme barely got off the ground because the interest rates on the loans were higher than those available from high street banks.

It was no surprise that loft and cavity wall insulation installations collapsed by 92% in 2013 and 74% in 2014 and have not recovered since. Analysis by the Carbon Brief shows that, if Cameron had kept the “green crap”, the UK’s energy bill would be £2.5bn lower than it is now.

>> Also read: Spring statement: chancellor brings forward green energy rates relief

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These measures would not have solved the energy price crisis alone, but they would have softened the blow. And, critically, a functioning green deal or equivalent would have stimulated a retrofit industry that would be well placed to ramp up activity.

Instead, the failure of the green deal saw those who trained as energy assessors lose their training investment as there was no demand for their services.

The track record of this government has not been any better. The £3bn green homes grant was scrapped last year after a fraction of the money had been spent, with a select committee describing its conception as “botched” and implementation nothing short of “disastrous”.

There has never been a better time than now to move the national conversation onto energy efficiency

Stratospheric energy price rises coupled with a rude awakening of the strategic importance of where we source our energy from means there has never been a better time than now to move the national conversation onto energy efficiency. This is the only surefire way to cut prices, carbon emissions and make us strategically more resilient.

Yet the mainstream media remains fixated on government subsidy as the answer for struggling families rather than discussing how people can cut their energy use and still stay warm.

In 2019 the government committed to spend £9.2bn during the life of this parliament on energy efficiency improvements for fuel-poor households; now it needs to really ramp up implementation to help those in greatest need.

This sum should be supplemented as necessary. The £9.1bn committed by the government in February to take some of the sting out of energy bills is only a partial, short-term fix that has no long-term benefit.

The cut in VAT on energy efficiency improvements and the boiler upgrade scheme that grants £5,000 for a heat pump are welcome – but much more is needed. The Climate Change Committee estimates that £250bn will need to be spent on upgrading homes by 2050, with £45bn spent by 2035.

Realistically people will have to stump up much of this themselves – with some pump priming by government, loans and tax incentive schemes.

One way to help raise public consciousness of the value of energy efficiency improvements, and to ensure that money released by grant schemes and VAT cuts is spent effectively, would be to offer every UK home a free energy assessment.

The framework for this already exists: a PAS 2035:2019 assessment provides an energy performance report, a condition report, an occupation report and a retrofit assessment with the idea that it helps people to fully understand what energy efficiency interventions are needed.

Not only will this help to avoid undesirable interactions such as insulation upgrades without controlled, adequate ventilation but it will help people to identify the most cost-effective upgrades which can be done immediately or over time, depending on budgets.

This would clearly set out the savings to be made from investing in improvements and help prompt action. And it would also stimulate the market for energy assessors, which is sorely needed after the fiasco of the green deal.

With the market stimulated by awareness of the benefits of retrofit, the industry would have greater confidence that investing in training would be worthwhile

With an assessment costing £250-£300 for the average home, the cost to the exchequer would be up to £8.4bn – less than the recently announced help with energy bills. It would also provide jobs as an army of assessors would be needed. 

Once assessments had been completed, the assessors could become PAS 2035 retrofit co-ordinators to help manage the work.

With the market stimulated by awareness of the benefits of retrofit, the industry would have greater confidence that investing in training would be worthwhile. This would be given added impetus by the government building this into a national retrofit strategy in partnership with industry.

It may be a big and expensive job, but recent events have shown that continuing to kick the can down the road is no longer a viable option.

Thomas Lane is Building’s group technical editor