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Seven big ideas to speed up the transition to low-carbon homes

Home heating contributes one fifth of the UK’s carbon emissions (according to a recent report from the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy). Whilst uptake of electric cars has risen rapidly over the past 10 years, low-carbon heating solutions haven’t taken off. And, in July last year, the government scrapped the £1.5 billion Green Homes Grant which sought to accelerate the uptake of low-carbon heating and improvements to insulation and support jobs. With the lukewarm reception to the recent Heat and Buildings Strategy, it’s time to think about some new ideas. So, what can be done to stimulate speedier adoption of new technologies to reduce the carbon footprint of our homes? What must central government do? What is the role of local government and, perhaps most importantly, who is going to pay for it all? We posed these questions to leaders in the sector and here are the big ideas they came up with.

These big ideas were presented at Nesta’s party conference events in Autumn 2021.

1. Digital passports for buildings

James Williams, founder of zero-carbon property development company Sero, proposed the idea of digital passports as a way to identify the current state of a building. This passport would set out a property’s carbon footprint and the most effective pathway to improve energy efficiency. Green Finance Institute’s recent report on Building Renovation Passports (BRPs) illustrates how they could provide the information and guidance to enable property owners to improve their properties and reduce emissions. BRPs typically contain a digital logbook of renovations at a property-level, with historical and contemporary information about the property, its construction and operational performance; and a long-term renovation roadmap that identifies future retrofits and installations to decarbonise the property, along with links to contractors, other service providers and finance options.

2. Legislate for empty spaces in new builds

Alex Stafford MP, member of the Commons Business Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, spoke about the need to to change legislation to ensure that every new home has an empty space that would allow for the installation of technologies of the future. Using the example of 45 destroyer ships that were built with multiple empty spaces that could accommodate new sonar and radar capabilities, he made the case that new homes should have empty spaces in order to avoid the need for retrofitting when home batteries, heat pumps, solar panels and home charging points are more commonplace.

3. Translate policy lessons from electric cars to heat pumps

Roz Bulleid, Deputy Policy Director for the Green Alliance, urged the audience to learn lessons from the joined-up strategy for electric vehicles. She praised the government effort to provide support for research and development and the way car manufacturers and consumers had been involved in planning and uptake. Ms Bulleid argued that the task for government when it comes to heat pumps includes thinking about how to ‘take people with you’, creating a narrative that supports smart homes, thinking about domestic battery use and how we can have comfortable homes using segmented heating. By setting out her view in a blog about how we can phase out cars with engines, she provides a template for how we could also think in a joined-up way about phasing out energy-heavy elements of many homes.

4. Support local government to create sustainable communities

Baroness Blake, Shadow Spokesperson for Housing, Communities and Local Government, and former Leader of Leeds City Council, spoke about the importance of creating housing policies within the context of sustainable communities. Creating truly carbon-neutral homes requires settings where residents can easily access work, leisure and family fun without relying on a private car. Baroness Blake argued that we need legislation that gives local authorities the powers needed to deliver climate change priorities in a more holistic way that works for whole communities. A good example of the role a local authority can play can be seen in the Leeds Climate Commission, which proposes a more integrated vision of carbon-free environments by fostering collaboration between public, private and civic sectors, and the use of a citizens’ jury process to support participative decision making.

5. Bring down the cost of heat pumps

Clem Cowton, Director of External Affairs at Octopus, made the case for the role of business in bringing down energy bills and tackling climate change. Octopus recently secured 600 million dollars of investment from Al Gore’s investment fund, Generation, to boost its green energy production. Ms Cowton argued that businesses need to make heat pumps desirable; people will want to buy a great product at the right price point that improves their lives. Octopus plans to halve the cost of a heat pump within the next year and bring the price in line with gas boilers very soon after that.

Ms Cowton highlighted some areas for government action. The costs of decarbonisation currently sit on the electricity bill, which creates a perverse incentive to burn gas. Dynamic pricing, where energy is cheaper at times of low demand, also has a role to play. We should be able to use a heat pump as a battery and our homes as an energy store, running when there is cheap renewable energy available. Finally, grants for electric cars have worked well as a simple discount on the sticker price of a new vehicle, bringing it into the affordability range for consumers. Time-limited grants will be vital for heat pumps to scale and reach a similar price point to new boilers.

6. Focus on hyperlocal action

Sam Alvis, Head of Green Renewal at Green Alliance, spoke about the importance of hyperlocal action and raised the idea of heat pump towns, similar to hydrogen towns, the first of which is underway in the Tees Valley. He noted the importance of word of mouth in the adoption of new technologies – solar panels and electric vehicles are often adopted by people living close to each other who recommend the benefits and cost savings. As one of the key issues in decarbonising homes is cost, he acknowledged that the Treasury has a role to play and must be agnostic about the technologies it supports - the focus must be on supporting people to adopt whatever low-carbon solutions are most suitable for them.

7. Repower local authorities

Polly Billington, Director of UK100, advocates for giving greater power to local authorities because many of them are moving faster than national government when it comes to zero-carbon targets. The ambition to create change is demonstrated in the UK100, a network of decision makers who are sharing knowledge and petitioning the UK government for greater powers to act in key areas regarding the environment. Resources also play a role, with some local authorities noting that they cannot enforce minimum energy efficiency standards because they lack the resources to act. Empowering local government means enabling local leadership on climate action and supporting the creation of a skilled workforce – issues that UK100 will continue to campaign on.


Cara Sanquest

Cara Sanquest

Cara Sanquest

Interim Campaigns Lead

Cara is the campaigns manager for Nesta's communications team.

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