Leaking houses in Britain are worsening the energy crisis. Why have governments not corrected them? | Max Wakefield
OIn recent days, the country has been plunged into panic, as soaring gas prices threaten to plunge hundreds of thousands more households into fuel poverty, joining the 2.5 million already present. For others, budgets that are too tight will be even tighter. Any country dependent on the world gas market faces the risk of permanent price shocks. But let’s be clear: the scale of this crisis was not inevitable. This is, in large part, the result of a decade of government failure to shield us from the dire drawbacks of fossil fuel dependence.
The UK is a difficult country to keep warm. It has one of the oldest and tightest housing stock in Western Europe, ensuring that heat is quickly dissipated through walls, windows and doors after leaving the radiators. Nine out of ten households use gas boilers, and many gas boilers need a lot of gas: UK households consume more than almost all of their European peers, around twice the EU average. In 2000, when North Sea gas accounted for 98% of overall supply, households were unlikely to experience price shocks. But as domestic production fell by two-thirds over the next two decades, imports fell from just 2% to 60% of supply to close the gap.
Gas burned in households is now equivalent to half of all imports – which is why any spike in gas prices immediately translates into higher heating bills. At times like these, there is little distance between the average household and the opaque mechanics of a deeply politicized and profit-driven global gas market. Using cheap gas to make up for the mediocrity of the housing stock only works as long as gas is cheap – and as long as you don’t have an out of control climate crisis.
Given all of this, you would be forgiven for thinking that the government could have made this a national priority in recent years to reduce our unwavering dependence on fossil gas. While this is an important task, a well-designed program to repair homes across the country should not have eluded us. It’s Rockwool insulation, not rocket science. Instead, we have witnessed a decade of outright half-measures and failures.
In 2013, the conservative-led coalition launched the “green deal”. Intended to be free for the government, it offered loans – with interest – to households to install efficiency measures, repayable through household energy bills. Unsurprisingly, the complexity of the scheme combined with its inherent financial uncertainty has not led to strong adoption. Of a target of 14 million isolated households by 2020, only 15,000 had been completed when the program was abandoned a few years later.
Then the zero-carbon house standard, which was due to go into effect in 2016, would have required new homes to generate as much energy on-site from renewable sources as they used – it was a flagship policy that definitely worth the hype. Instead, shortly after the Tories’ surprise victory in the 2015 election, George Osborne killed the program at the behest of the construction lobby. It was never revived.
Then came the grant for green houses, announced in one of Covid’s first economic stimulus packages last year. It was a simpler program, with initial government grants. And yet, despite tremendous public interest and applications for the program, it only reached 5,800 of its 600,000 target households – a select committee investigation called its implementation “sloppy” and its failure. administration of “disastrous”. Like the green deal almost a decade ago, it was canceled earlier.
The sum total of this is not pretty. Between 2012 and 2019, the number of home insulation installations actually fell by 95%. The National Energy Action charity noted that at this rate, it would take nearly a century to properly insulate all of the country’s current low-fuel homes. In 2021, millions of people still live in fuel poverty, and many more will likely join them this winter, while gas-fired household boilers account for one in seven tones of carbon the UK emits each year, accelerating the climate crisis.
This must be the last winter fuel crisis we face, and our homes must stand the test of time without delay. Ministers are already more than a year behind in tabling plans on how to end the burning of gas for heating. They must deliver a credible plan immediately. Only an ambitious, long-term, well-funded and well-designed national modernization program will do.
Even further than that, it is far more than time to say goodbye to gas boilers. No new construction should be hooked up to gas, and every time a boiler breaks down, with a few exceptions, it has to be replaced with a heat pump – an ultra-efficient device that uses electricity to recover heat. ambient air (or ground) to heat your home. The United Kingdom supports the table of European countries for annual installations: Lithuania installs five times more per year than us, Italy 10 and Norway 60.
At the current rate, it will take around 700 years for the UK to switch to low carbon heating. Legally inscribed government climate commitments require us to be halfway through by the mid-2030s. The good news is that the public is increasingly warming to change: a poll by researchers at Walnut Unlimited in June revealed that more than two-thirds of people agreed that homes should switch to a low-carbon heat source. Like solar panels, the more they are installed, the more we will learn – and the cheaper they will be.
This task is ambitious, but also quite achievable. To be successful, we must learn from our mistakes – and the success of others. Whether this government does so will be a decisive factor in whether we will once again find ourselves at the mercy of the markets as winter nights approach.