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New Energy World magazine logo
New Energy World magazine logo
ISSN 2753-7757 (Online)

The case for an energy retrofit programme for UK homes


4 min read

Head and shoulders image of Gillian Charlesworth Photo: Gillian Charlesworth
Gillian Charlesworth, CEO, Building Research Establishment (BRE)

Photo: Gillian Charlesworth

Reducing our dependence on Russian energy is important, but the need for urgent climate action preceded the recent devastation in Ukraine, writes Gillian Charlesworth, CEO of the Building Research Establishment (BRE).

The start of May 2022 marked six months since the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, and while there was limited optimism about what the summit had achieved, growing international collaboration and a firmer consensus around the need for climate action was welcome.


Three months after the summit’s conclusion, however, the global political and economic order was turned on its head as Russian troops invaded Ukraine. In desperate circumstances, the invasion has acted as an unlikely catalyst for the acceleration of climate action – particularly here in the UK.


The West’s heavy reliance on Russian fossil fuels including gas and oil has been an uncomfortable and accepted truth for some time now, and it’s regrettable that it’s taken such a human tragedy to address this glaring issue.


The UK government recently published its Energy Security Strategy, setting out plans to wean Britons off natural gas imported from Russia. While there were some promising pledges – such as advocating the use of nuclear, offshore wind, solar and hydrogen power to bolster the long-term security of the UK’s energy supply – we were ultimately disappointed by the strategy’s lack of commitment to a faster transition to renewable energy.


As a result, the strategy will do little to improve the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings, which are some of the oldest and least efficient in Europe. With Britain’s draughty buildings contributing a quarter of the UK’s carbon emissions and unnecessarily inflating demand for natural gas, addressing this problem will be crucial for reducing our carbon footprint and supporting our continued drive to net zero over the next 30 years.


This is where a national retrofit plan comes into play.


Making the case for retrofit
At BRE, we have spent a long time advocating for a national retrofit programme which would see our homes and buildings made more energy efficient, in part through the adoption of green new technologies. Last year, the UK government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy, Net Zero Strategy and Sustainable Finance Roadmap all paid recognition to the fact that heat pumps and other green technologies are what will be needed to decarbonise.


However, people are understandably sceptical about how quickly an impact heat pumps could have in decarbonising the built environment. For instance, the £450mn allocation in grant funding from the government for heat pumps will only result in 90,000 installations over the next three years. While heat pumps and other green technologies will play a crucial role in the long-term plan, we need to decarbonise our homes and buildings and there are shorter-term solutions to the problem which can be – and need to be – taken now.


Indeed, improving the insulation of our housing stock remains the quickest and most cost-effective way of decarbonising the built environment. However, whilst the government has recognised the importance of properly insulating Britain’s housing stock, proper fiscal support for able-to-pay households will be paramount if they are to be encouraged to upgrade their homes – particularly amid the cost-of-living crisis.


The payback to public services and society would also be significant if we were to prioritise insulating the UK’s housing stock now. Currently, excess cold within homes – which is to a large extent caused by inadequate or a lack of insulation – currently costs the NHS over £850mn a year in treatment bills, according to a recent report by BRE. However, if we were to address this issue now, for example, by installing proper insulation, the NHS would be paid back within seven years.


Applying a sense of urgency
Whilst it shouldn’t have taken this long to understand the need to act, and to act quickly, the fallout of the Ukraine-Russia crisis is a stark reminder to accelerate our approach to tackling the climate crisis, particularly with regards to the built environment.


Aside from keeping consumers’ energy bills down and reducing their carbon footprint, retrofitting homes is a fast and cost-effective way to reduce demand for natural gas and support the UK’s long-term energy security plan. With a greater understanding of the benefits of green technologies and solutions like insulation, we will be able to capitalise on the momentum that’s already been built – and deliver a greener built environment, to benefit households, businesses, wider society and our economy.  


The views and opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author only and are not necessarily given or endorsed by or on behalf of the Energy Institute.