Improving energy efficiency across Great Britain’s energy system is important for a whole host of reasons: we want to reduce waste so we can make the most of our renewable energy during periods of peak demand; we want to look after the environment better and limit the effects of climate change; and, very importantly, we want to bring the overall cost of energy down.
While we may not make the immediate connection between our everyday activities like running a bath or watching the telly and greenhouse gas emissions – who could blame us – our homes account for 13% of the UK’s total emissions. Reducing the impact of the energy we use at home is a crucial part of meeting our net-zero by 2050 target as a nation.
Today in the UK we have about 25% more homes than we did in 1990, and there are plans for 1.5 million more by 2022. The good news is our overall total emissions from domestic properties have decreased by almost a fifth over the past 30 years, but the bad news is, greenhouse gas emission reductions from housing have started to stall.
Fair enough, solar and wind farm investment can drive a much sexier PR campaign compared to loft insulation and upgraded boilers. Photo opportunities are likely to be more sought after at the grand opening of a ‘green’ investment megasite than the installation of water-saving shower heads. But if we want to make fundamental and long-lasting changes to our energy consumption, we have to ‘sweat the small stuff’ as well.
We need to take significant action as a nation if we are going to meet both our housing goals and our carbon reduction targets – imagine a world where we didn’t achieve both.
Real-life, everyday benefits of energy efficiency in the home
Keeping an energy efficient home isn’t just good for the environment, it’s good for you. It can improve our feelings of financial security by reducing our energy bills and enabling us to better manage during the colder months, and a comfortable, welcoming home has positive effects on our overall health.
Little changes around the home can affect its energy efficiency. Draught excluders are of course a well-known option, and easier to install changes such as thicker curtains and stick-on door insulation contribute to small but quick savings. As time marches on, technology can give us a hand – enter the ‘eco kettle’! Not to be scoffed at, some models can use an average of 20% less power than a standard one.
Just the small act of having smart meters installed gives us an insight into the way energy is used in our homes. Energy efficiency advice, tailored to individual circumstances, is offered during a smart meter installation, along with an in-home display. Both of these are included in the no-additional cost (read: no up-front investment) installation, and can give us timely information about our energy use we wouldn’t be able to access otherwise. If you are a bit of a put-a-jumper-on miser like me, it’s a great tool for spotting where you might be wasting energy in the home with appliances on standby, or rogue device chargers sucking the life out of your energy bills.
What’s more, the in-home display is a great tool to investigate just how energy efficient the items in our home are. If you find you have a cooker, kettle or tumble dryer that uses more energy than a higher efficiency model, you’ll be able to decide for yourself if upgrading can bring your overall energy costs down even further. Latest research shows 8 out of 10 consumers with smart meters have a better idea of their energy spending overall, and 60% of smart meter owners think twice about using high energy appliances in the home.
Return on investment
A particular challenge in energy efficiency exists in social and privately rented homes. Tenants can of course make small, temporary (yet very important) changes around the home to improve energy efficiency – for example using energy efficient lightbulbs or draught excluders. Yet some of the biggest gains can be found in making long-term alterations to the property, such as insulation or upgrading to more energy-friendly appliances.
When the person responsible for making significant improvements to energy efficiency in a home is not the same person who will reap the immediate benefits (and by extension the return on the investment), how can we bridge the gap between the two? Can government and charities shoulder some of the cost of changes, with the goal of bolstering the health and wellbeing of the nation and our environment? Should tenants put more pressure on landlords to make these improvements, perhaps in exchange for longer tenancy periods (which increase security for both parties)?
Equally, the private rental industry may begin to see energy efficiency as a vital selling point for properties on the market. We could see savvy tenants only seek out homes with higher EPC ratings where their energy costs could be lower. Landlords who lag behind their competitors in making improvements to efficiency might find themselves having difficulty in shifting draughty, energy-wasting properties.
Having a smart meter can give tenants access to some of the best tariffs on the market, including time-of-use tariffs to suit different lifestyles. Fortunately, tenants who pay their bills directly to their energy suppliers can request to have their traditional energy meters replaced with smart meters at no additional cost to them or their landlord. Access to (and uptake of) smart meters in rented properties can be improved by giving tenants the explicit right to have a smart meter installed, and making smart meters a requirement for issuing new EPCs.
Energy efficiency today to meet higher demand tomorrow
What are the risks of not pushing for greater energy efficiency now? Can’t we just increase the amount of renewable energy available on the market to meet increasing demand? Whack a solar panel on every roof and job done? The answer is an emphatic ‘no’ – from a purely financial standpoint, typical small scale renewable energy installations won’t see a return on investment for over 21 years, whereas making changes to improve your home’s energy efficiency cuts that time by more than half, on average.
A key reason for us to collectively reduce the amount of energy we require is because the way we consume energy is set to change over the coming years. Future plans for the decarbonisation of heating and transport show us the amount of electricity we will be using will increase. The popularity of electric vehicles is increasing with no signs of slowing down, and that alone will increase demand for electricity by almost 15% before 2050.
In much the same way that we individually set personal financial budgets to prepare for future big-ticket spending, we need to harness the power of energy efficiency to save and conserve what we have now, knowing that our overall ‘expenditure’ will be larger in future. If we manage it properly, stay ahead of the curve and put the right measures in place, we won’t break the energy bank when the time comes.
To achieve our carbon emissions targets there is no silver bullet. It will take a massive, ambitious upgrade to the nation’s energy system, huge shifts to how we buy and use energy, and yes, boring old LED lightbulbs and hot water tank jackets.
Every action we take counts, no matter how big or how small.