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Incentives, education and more power to the consumer are the way forward for successful energy efficiency retrofit

Posted by Matthew Rhodes on 27 July 2011 at 9:45 am

I was astonished to discover today that I last blogged about Retrofit for the Future over 18 months ago, in October 2009, when I was optimistic about the scheme and the way it seemed to be mobilising the whole sector to think about innovation and change.

Since then Encraft has been lucky enough to lead three of the 87 projects selected for funding, and all three have been designed, completed and monitoring has started.

(For those readers who don’t know, Retrofit for the Future was a government competition for designs to reduce carbon emissions from social housing by 80%, and the winning entries were funded to see their designs turned into reality. Encraft submitted designs to retrofit two rural properties in Warwickshire and an Edwardian terraced house in Birmingham, and all three won and were funded. You can see the full stories at Rural Innovation for the Future and Inspiration Birmingham 2020, and on YouTube.

So how did we get on in terms of meeting our targets of 80% carbon reduction, what have we learned, and am I quite so optimistic still?

Well ... First of all, it was a fantastically powerful learning experience for the engineers involved (actually all physicists in our case) as well as the contractors and architects we employed, and maybe even the tenants of the houses as well.

Everyone did a fantastic job, and on paper we have met or exceeded the 80% target in all cases. We will know about next February if this is true in practice, because we’ll have a full year’s monitoring data by then, but initial signs are reasonably positive: all the equipment is working and the insulation and installation is of a high quality in all cases.

The only flies in the ointment – and they are quite large flies – are the building occupiers themselves, who will ultimately control the level of CO2 emissions from their own homes, and are quite rightly less susceptible to technical interventions. I would be amazed if they don’t take some of the benefits back in the form of improved comfort, and push us back below the target, but we’ll have to wait and see.

I have no doubt at all that managing the occupiers is by far the biggest challenge and cost of these projects. In our three properties we managed to find the full spectrum of possible responses, from complete support through to complete hostility almost from day one of the project, seeing it simply as an opportunity to extract as much as possible from “them”. The one difficult tenant, needless to say, probably took up 80% of management effort and forced us down paths where we had to get decisions agreed in writing, ensure witnesses or film evidence were available, etc.

Saying occupiers are the biggest challenge is easy, finding ways to apply this lesson to policy and the kind of large scale retrofit programmes we need in the UK is not.

The classic response is to deploy armies of tenant liaison officers and essentially accept the high costs of persuading people to do what is wanted (and also to recognise this has limits, because maybe as soon as the officer’s back is turned, the thermostat goes back up and the windows are opened). After our experiences with these projects I don’t think this is enough, and it may be misguided altogether, like believing the solution to a leaky waterpipe is to build a reservoir rather than fix the leak.

Instead, I begin to think we should start thinking about building occupiers not as part of the problem, needing to be solved, but instead as part of the solution, waiting to be empowered. If we do this we’d approach the whole retrofit agenda in a different way: out with standard methodologies and technical solutions for archetype properties; in with market-based incentive schemes for monitored energy savings, in with customer education, and in with more power to customers to choose their own providers and technologies.

If I could see more evidence for this kind of shift in attitude in Whitehall, and schemes like the Green Deal, I think my optimism about retrofitting for the future might well return!

About the author:

Matthew Rhodes is chief executive of Encraft

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