Delivering the Renewable Heat Incentive - speech to Westminster Forum
Posted by Cathy Debenham on 15 November 2012 at 9:44 am
This is my speech to the Westminster Energy, Environment and Transport Forum seminar on Delivering the Renewable Heat Incentive: controlling costs suppporting new technologies and moving towards the domestic roll out on Tuesday 13 November 2012.
YouGen is a information website for home and small business owners. We try to provide the answers to the very practical things people want to know before they talk to an installer.
Having been dominated by solar PV until recently, our visitor statistics indicate that people are increasingly interested in renewable heat. There are now more visitors to both the heap pump and biomass boiler pages, than to Solar PV.
In preparing for this talk I asked our newsletter readers what they would like me to say to you today. I got a rush of emails – but no consistent message. Instead their responses were an eloquent illustration that there is confusion and ignorance, and that consumer confidence is pretty low. And these people are the low hanging fruit – the ones who are interested enough to sign up to receive a renewable energy newsletter.
There are lots of things I could mention about the RHI (renewable heat incentive) proposals, but I've chosen to focus on consumer confidence which is the one I am most concerned about. At this stage of a new market it is fundamental to the successful adoption of renewable heat technologies.
I talk with a lot of early adopters of renewable energy, and have heard a lot of horror stories around installations of renewable heat. Problems are especially likely if people are combining two technologies.Just last night I got an email from someone who had a ground source heat pump installed earlier this year, asking for advice as it hadn't performed right ever since. The stories I hear are not dissimilar from the findings of the energy saving trust’s field trials for heat pumps and solar thermal. Both identified plenty of room for improvement. While early adopters tend to accept the risks involved in being a pioneer, it’s not going to work for the mass market.
Those early adopters are unlikely to take their stories to the Daily Mail. People who have been mis-sold a heat pump system, and end up with huge electricity bill, or no hot water, will. If too many of them do it, the renewable heat market risks crumbling before it even gets off the ground.
What we need is quality installations, and happy customers telling positive stories. This will lead to confidence, and from confidence comes investment. Last week I met a farmer who had just installed a biomass boiler, to replace oil. He said: "It's the first time in the history of our house that we've been warm. Last year we were scraping ice off the inside of the windows." These are the kind of stories we need to hear.
I am encouraged by the fact that the domestic RHI is a boiler replacement scheme, rather than a Feed-in tariff style scheme offering a big return on investment. I think it’s in everyone’s interest for the shift to renewable heat to build steadily, rather than explode FIT-like. This will extend the period of learning that’s happening with the renewable heat premium payments. Hopefully the lower return will also deter the cowboy element from entering the market.
Some of the challenges I see are:
- Confusion and ignorance among the public
- Not a high enough skill level – especially in system design – among installers
- Installers who aren’t good at educating their customers and communicating how to get the best out of a system
I also worry about the emphasis among installers on selling on price, and a lack of understanding of value and how to communicate that to a customer. In solar PV this has led to a race to the bottom. Retrofitting renewable heat technologies is much more complicated and disruptive for the customer, and often needs the householder to manage the system differently to what they are used to to get the best out of it. The Daily Mail danger is much greater.
So what can we do about it?
I see two key areas for industry: installer training should include substantive sections on system design, and also on how to communicate with customers: both about value, and about how to use the controls and how to get the best out of the system.
More installers could take a lesson from supermarkets that have value, mid and premium ranges and offer consumers a choice to fit their needs, rather than coming along offering one option, take it of leave it.
However, for consumers I think the education needs are greater. This whole transition to energy efficiency and renewable heat is so important that it needs a concerted education programme. Relying on industry, which after all has a product to sell, is not enough. I join the Green Alliance and others in calling for a government-supported education programme along the lines of the successful one for digital switchover.
This will also help lessen the dangers of cowboys jumping into the market and mis-selling. One of the respondents to my newsletter request for information said “I regret the RHI announcement hasn’t reached me, and I haven’t had the spate of ads from cold callers to advertise the fact either”. Do we really want the first bit of information about renewable heat a householder receives to come from a (pushy) salesperson asking "have you taken up your government incentive for a heat pump yet?"?By Cathy Debenham
If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.
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