By Scott McRae, Engagement Director at Amido.
There is a tough road to decarbonisation ahead for the housing sector. The UK carbon neutral homes initiative is asking for a net zero carbon economy by 2050, and the effort required to meet this goal is expected to cost the industry more than £104bn to deliver. Yet, says a report by the National Housing Federation, the virtual elimination of carbon emissions across all social housing has the potential to deliver ‘enormous benefits for residents, communities, the economy, and the environment ’. How can technology lean into the challenge ahead and give homeowners and Housing Associations the tools to create and maintain housing for the new model?
All new homes and buildings in England are now under directive to produce significantly less CO2 – around 30% less – as a significant part of the national drive towards net zero, and changes to building regulations have been designed to make that law. Additionally, the Future Homes and Buildings Standard – which will apply from 2025 – applies not just to new homes but to existing properties, and so includes the 2.7million homes owned by housing associations. The FHB Standard lays out standards that complement these regulations and looks to ensure 75%-80% less carbon emissions.
The thread of technology runs through the NHF Decarbonisation Guide for Housing Associations which calls for social housing businesses to ‘move more quickly, so that other parts of the economy that are harder to decarbonise are bought as much time as possible’. Indeed, housing associations are already starting to act and bring in technology in to help reach them reach their targets, whether it be for new or existing homes.
It all starts with small scale renewables, but we need to do more.
With the desire to move the dial as quickly as possible, the focus is naturally on small scale renewables for homes. Including air and ground source heat pumps and solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, these are increasingly familiar to tenants and homeowners alike and – along with energy storage and insulation systems – are the mainstay of many retrofits. However, says Professor Will Swan from the University of Salford, without innovation these solutions won’t provide the holistic solution we are looking for. PV systems for example need a smart battery storage solution to maximise benefits. Smart energy solutions business SMS have launched Solopower as a response to this need. Solopower is a financed smart solar and battery storage service for local authorities which “addresses the dual challenge of carbon emissions and fuel poverty”. Solutions like this, and other managed power schemes, provide better value for money for tenants and give landlords more control over the price of the electricity they supply. Domestic smart metering, too, provides homeowners, tenants, and housing associations with the opportunity to identify the energy consumption patterns in home appliances and replace those that are running inefficiently.
Heating and cooling our homes
For new builds to dramatically reduce carbon emissions, designs need to incorporate low carbon heating, better insulation, and – with the UK set to experience increasing higher temperature in the future – even renewable energy generation to cover the energy cost of cooling homes. Small scale renewable technologies such as heat pumps and solar PV dominate plans to move away from fossil fuels but other larger scale innovations – such as using aquifer thermal energy storage, and the tapping of geothermal energy from mines – have emerged to provide a variety of ways for the UK to transition to clean, efficient decarbonised technologies for our homes. The UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) councils have invested £14.6 million to support eleven projects exploring new technologies to tackle the decarbonisation of homes, buildings, and manufacturing. These projects also include the development and commercialisation of barocaloric heat pumps, and new heat storage and conversion technologies to absorb, accumulate and release curtailed electricity for use.
Although investment is assured in the design and build of carbon neutral homes, significant resources still need to be applied to carbon negative solutions that can make a dent in the carbon debt that has accumulated over the last 150 years. Innovation and technology have
the opportunity here to minimise some of the potentially high costs of retrofitting homes to meet the FHB standard and provide the means to monitor and refine energy usage on the fly. The Nottingham City Homes Energiesprong retrofits tackled heat loss in concrete cross wall properties with a range of measures to improve comfort and increase efficiency, including a communal energy system using a ground source heat pump and underpinned by Core Controls monitoring systems. The individual heating systems are now monitored and optimised by the Carnego specialist performance monitoring system, specifically tailored to the Energirprong system. Carnego includes app and web services to manage meter readings, solutions to continually monitor performance and compare it to the design intent of the building, and approaches that look at reducing energy and carbon through human behavioural techniques and the provision of real time data.
Use technology to access short term gains
Focusing on agile delivery of small change that can deliver quick, valuable wins is a savvy strategy in the context of a volatile economic climate. Pandemics, Brexit, and even war have impact on everything from tenants’ ability to pay rent to the cost and availability of materials and resources. Looking for fast pay back and delivering incrementally against long term strategic plans is a good way to manage risk and edge towards the targets with confidence. Ahead of retrofitting new heating technologies, gains can be found through technology such as smart thermostats that enable heating to be controlled remotely – even down to the radiators in specific rooms – and learn from a home’s layout, heat capacity and the local weather to maximise the efficiency of the current heating solution. Equally, smart sensors can record heat, humidity, and air flow data, building a picture of the internal environment and identifying potential issues with insulation, fittings, and damp. Housing Associations can reap even greater rewards from these technologies, allowing them to monitor and manage energy usage across housing stock, see patterns and identify properties with the greatest issues. Thus, these short-term solutions can inform the longer term roll out schedule for retrofitting low carbon heating technologies into these homes, and social housing businesses can improve the maintenance schedules to faster improve tenants’ quality of life.
It is evident that technology and innovation are both essential enablers in the challenge to tackle decarbonisation and meet the 2050 targets across both the private and social housing sectors. For Housing Associations the opportunities are rife, and with the right resources and a solid strategic plan – underpinned with an agile approach to execution – those targets may just be achievable.
Scott McRae is an Engagement Director at cloud-native consultancy, Amido. For the past 10+ years has worked with clients in social housing to reduce costs whilst transforming outcomes for residents through higher availability of better quality housing & associated services.