By David Thomas
Looking ahead to 2013, what can we see? The biggest feature on the horizon in terms of UK environmental legislation appears to be the Green Deal, designed to be a “new market framework” for retrofits.
Explaining the green deal
“A new market framework” – those are the words of Member of Parliament, Greg Barker, who has been the most vocal proponent of the green deal, the UK government’s flagship new environmental program. The reason the UK “needs” a new program is, it has pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 50 percent by 2020, up to 80 percent by 2050. To do so, it has consulted financial advisors and energy companies to come up with what it calls the green deal.
The Green Deal is for people who live in homes that are hard to heat. It allows them to make improvements worth up to ten thousand pounds. The improvements are paid for in installments over the next twenty years. The innovation is, these installments are added to their energy bill, which will have been reduced by the home improvements. That’s the theory. Underlying this is the “golden rule,” stipulating savings should exceed monthly repayments. Or, in other words, you should never pay more than you save. This is the green deal hook the government is dangling in front of UK citizens.
The other movement in UK sustainability
In offering the green deal to private companies instead of funding it with government money, the hope is that the program will flourish organically and, I suppose, evolve according to Darwinian economic theory into something absolutely fit for purpose. Let’s hope it works.
But there’s something else going on in the UK, that has to do with quantifying, and thereby reducing, energy use. Energy monitoring technology available on the market is making it easier for gadget lovers to save money. They do much to open people’s eyes to their energy consumption. Seeing your own energy use depicted on a graph with peaks and troughs will teach you more about your energy overheads than anything else, including a bill. Anyone with an appreciation for specialized instruments can pick up an energy monitoring system for around a hundred and fifty quid.
The monitor I’m most familiar with is the Wattson, because I’ve met the team who designed it a few times. The Wattson can be hooked up to your computer to project all your property’s energy consumption data into clear, attractive visualisations. Energeno, the company behind the device, also make modem units that beam your data into the cloud, wirelessly and in real time, so you can check your household’s usage wherever in the world you happen to be.
Using an energy monitoring system, you can see the difference in energy usage between a kettle and a half-kettle, for instance. The effect on a family that takes an interest is lasting. Mark Elliot, Director at Energeno, told me his sister calls her Wattson “the silent nagger,” because it’s the only thing that can persuade her son to switch off his hi-fi, and go easy on his Xbox hours (in principle, at least).
If you think energy monitoring systems are very middle-class, they are. The number of people willing to spend money on an energy monitoring system is significant, but it’s not the majority. Personally, I believe the device encourages enough saving that it essentially pays for itself. But if you live in a cold house, you live in a cold house, and the only thing that will change that is insulation. And so, back to the green deal.
What stands in the way of the green deal being really successful?
The green deal doesn’t have to inspire the nation, it just has to work. During the first months of 2013, we are expecting to see the green deal gather momentum, but so far it’s not catching on as hoped.
Personally, I believe the type of hype it’s been laboured with has done the green deal no favours. Greg Barker has made many appearances in the past year, projecting that the country will use the green deal to transform itself out of fuel poverty, in the biggest housing retrofit since the reparations made after the Battle of Britain. He has worked hard to enthuse, even inspire us with the green deal.
I don’t know if trying to inspire people was the correct route to choose. Put very simply, the green deal is a way to improve your home without an upfront payment. The most common improvements will probably be boilers, double glazing, and insulation. The effects will be the reduction of your heating bills, and an increase in comfort and the value of your home. When communicating these things, simple is best. For Greg Barker, as a new Minister, this has been a tempting opportunity to spin some impressive speeches, but I’d argue simplicity or even understatement would have been more appropriate.
Many times in 2012, Greg painted a picture of households undergoing complete transformations, and of the diversity of improvements available. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he made at the Eco Technology Show:
“We have to go way beyond the sorts of program that have gone before. We’ve got to make energy efficiency something that’s aspirational and that people want… And that’s why the Green Deal will be about so much more than loft insulation and cavity wall. It potentially could be about glazing, it could give you a new front door, lovely new LED lighting, new temperature controls, heating systems; it could actually transform the front of your home.”
The rhetoric needs to be calmed down. The green deal can improve parts of your home but it’s not a miracle. For most people, it’s absurd to transform an entire property. Instead they make changes to one room at a time, starting with the rooms they spend the most time in. I welcome the principle idea behind the Green Deal: to remember the fundamentals of good housing design, like retrofitting insulation and other improvements, and above all, keeping it simple.
IF YOU have any insights or opinions related to the Green Deal, please join the discussion by writing a comment below.
About the author:
David Thomas writes about energy efficiency and legislation concerning sustainability for GreenDeal.co.uk.