Evil gnome

The evil gnome who has taken up permanent residence on the shoulder of British prime minister Boris Johnson and whispers dark instructions into his ears, last week pronounced energy efficiency as “boring“.

His name is demonic comings. I’m sorry, that was a mistaken auto-correction by my dictation software; it should have read Dominic Cummings, who is chief political strategist to the UK PM.

If this view succeeds in influencing government policy it would represent a reversal of the Conservative party election pledge at the end of last year to “invest £9.2 billion (AU$16.5b) in the energy efficiency of homes, schools and hospitals”.

As part of his much taunted “new deal”, Johnson announced last week a paltry £8 million (AU$143m) to cut CO2 from homes and industry, alongside £200 million (AU$358m) of funding for cutting edge R&D efforts, fuelling fears that the £9.2b efficiency upgrade program could be sidelined.

Cummings is said to want the money spent on building homes instead, with insulation perhaps added as an afterthought (which is never wise and often simply not possible).

Philip Dunne, the Tory chair of a House of Commons committee looking into home insulation, has urged the Prime Minister not to listen to this gnome.

And a major report from government climate change watchdog, the Committee on Climate Change, published on Thursday, warned that presently we are heading for a disastrous 4° higher world and said that low carbon retrofits were an essential part of avoiding this, as well as useful for tackling post-pandemic economic regeneration.

Perhaps that is boring too.

Boring Ireland

If he wants energy efficiency to be not boring, Cummings could do worse than take a look at what is going on in the Republic of Ireland (although he probably won’t want to since it voted to remain in Europe).

There, a Climate Action Plan sets “an ambitious target of 500,000 energy efficiency retrofits by 2030, to be supported by the Project Ireland 2040 allocation of €3.7b (AU$6b) as well as the range of other measures” according to Richard Bruton, the minister for climate action.

A pilot whole house-based approach to deep retrofit was funded from 2017 to 2019 by the Sustainable Energy Association Ireland’s Deep Retrofit pilot program. A total of 17 service providers were funded to explore the pros and cons of various solutions on different housing types, securing some interesting results that could be replicated later and elsewhere.

Buildings treated have been transformed from an E or G Energy rating to A3, the highest, using techniques including airtightness, elimination of thermal bridges, underfloor heating, mechanical ventilation with any recovery, solar power and heat pumps.

The real Dominic Cummings

A bit more than insulation then

Sorry, perhaps I shouldn’t mention underfloor heating since it might involve boring (holes that is).

The Irish government grants provided 50 per cent of the costs (95 per cent for those on low incomes) and the average deep retrofit household would beforehand spend between €1600 (AU$2593) to €2000 (AU$3240) a year on heating, a figure that would be slashed in homes with an A3 rating to around €500 (AU$810) per year. Bored yet? You wouldn’t be if you lived in that home.

What’s more research from the Irish Economic and Social Research Institute suggests that an A-rated home has a significantly higher sale and rental price.

One organisation named SuperHomes has retrofitted over 200 houses, the majority to A3 BER – but only by using grant funding for all of them.

Yet is grant-funding a boring way to fund deep retrofits?

It turns out that government – or any –  investment in green construction is a highly effective way to create jobs and thus repay the investment long-term.

CCC chief executive Chris Stark, and Julie Hirigoyen, chief executive at the UK Green Building Council, have both observed that construction and retrofit is one of the best ways to create jobs, for each £1 or €1 invested. “Energy efficiency is ‘shovel ready’ – with labour-intensive projects rooted in local supply chains,” Hirigoyen says.

A 15-year program of deep energy retrofit would return £1.25 (AU$2.24) to the government for each £1 (AU$1.79) invested from the increased tax take resulting from job creation plus supply chain activity, increased household disposable income, and a lower state welfare bill. This is according to research by Verco and Cambridge Econometrics for UK climate change think tank E3G in 2014.

Three times as many jobs for each £1 invested

Dominic Cummings should note that that makes government borrowing in order to fund energy efficient construction rather good sense. But perhaps he does not want to see sense.

Clean energy (both renewable generation and boring energy efficiency work) and construction yield up to three times as many jobs for each £1 invested than investments in fossil fuel, according to further research – an Oxford University evaluation of 700 stimulus packages implemented after the 2008 financial crash. Construction projects also keep more of the investment locally.

Funding retrofits by savings on energy bills – which the UK government has tried before – hits the poorest hardest and should be avoided. Unless that’s your policy objective, Dominic. Who knows?

If he did not think they were boring he could look at tax incentives (such as relief on stamp duty).

Or maybe he’s turned on by subsidised lending, in the form of a rolling loan fund, where low cost finance is offered by private investors. Plenty of these are now seeking “green”, future-proofed investments, wishing to take their money away from unsafe fossil fuels.

This work would likely be undertaken in line with the retrofit quality protocol, PAS 2035, in order to give them the confidence they need to lend.

Since it’s a rolling fund, the returned investment is reinvested in further projects, boringly ad infinitum.

Dominic Cummings allegedly likes maths and data. There would be a great deal of both behind that approach. Then again he could just go back to playing Warhammer, as he did at university. That’s not boring at all.

David Thorpe is the author of Passive Solar Architecture Pocket Reference,  Energy Management in Buildings and  Sustainable Home Refurbishment. He also runs the online course, a Post-Graduate Certificate in One Planet Governance. He is based in the UK.

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  1. Benchmarking is always a good way to achieve an outcome and if we need to look overseas for such a benchmark, then so we should.

    As for your point on affordable housing, all we have to do is decentralise, which won’t happen if we keep cramming people into places like Sydney.

    Decentralise private and govt business to create regional jobs and people will flock away from the rat race and live in affordable environments.

    COVID has shown we are capable of working remotely.

  2. What a silly article.
    Do we really have to obsess with what is happening in the UK?
    I don’t and I am sure most don’t care about or for Mr Cummings,or for that matter Boris! I care about Australia and what we can do to fix the awful shortage of land suitable for building houses for those on low to moderate income and those with a disability, in other words land close to services and amenities. That is what you should be advocating.
    Come home Fifth Estate