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Why we should build renewables into new homes

Posted by James Page on 5 September 2013 at 9:20 am

When the government proposed a 'bonfire of red tape' I never seriously thought they would want to stop renewable energy requirements for new buildings. One of the few levers local authorities have over builders is to make planning permission conditional on provisions, such as solar panels, which go some way towards compensating for the carbon impact of the development.

I proposed this to Richmond council back in 2000 (long before I worked in the sector) and the planning inspector supported the idea. The council was not keen, but when it saw Merton and the GLA adopt similar rules it eventually joined in. It costs the council nothing, and the developers very little, at least in comparison to London house prices. Such regional variations are precisely why relying on national building regulations would achieve much less.

Having a source of free energy on the roof can only add to the value of the house. But even though the long term return is good, short term a builder will be better off saving the up front investment to build the next house - so it is unreasonable to rely on market forces, as the government now appears to want. Everything would be built for next year, rather than the next generation.

In addition, Don Foster MP has announced consultations on scrapping the sustainability codes and various other pioneering means of saving water, embedded energy and other resources.

All this wouldn't be so bad if building regulations were tight.  In fact, the new building regulations that government has now agreed are less ambitious than had been proposed, and it will be some time before they start to incentivise the use of renewables. Nor will the 'Zero-Carbon' homes of 2016 take the lead, if the latest proposals to allow 'offsetting' are allowed.

Offsetting and trading of carbon credits are fine in theory but don't perform in practise. It's almost impossible to be sure that renewables schemes 'elsewhere' wouldn't have happened anyway. And the carbon credit market is highly volatile – at times the price to emit has been near to zero.

Having recently become part of the solar industry I would be the first to admit that in some ways planning obligations have been a disappointment. Developers tend to go for the minimum renewables they can get away with, and it's not always obvious that the system is still switched on a year later. Like children eating spinach, the benefits are missed. But these are issues that can be addressed. Instead the government 'impact assessment' of abandoning planning obligations has quantified the benefits to builders but ignored the effects on carbon emissions and on the solar industry.

The reality is that to meet our carbon reduction targets (and to keep the lights on) we should be building renewables in all new houses and the most economic way to do this is through planning obligations. Whether through lobbying from the building industry or a genuine desire to increase the supply of cheap housing the government is in danger of accelerating the production of houses more suited for the last century than this.

About the author: James Page is a chartered engineer and is head of engineering at Joju Solar. All views expressed are his own. He stores solar energy under the kitchen floor.

If you have a question about anything in the above blog, please ask it in the comments section below.

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