British Energy Security Strategy: action should start at home

Luke Osborne is energy and emerging technologies solutions advisor at the ECA

Last week’s British Energy Security Strategy outlined a much anticipated plan to achieve energy independence and net-zero carbon. It received mixed reactions from the construction sector, ranging from praise for its renewed focus on wind power to shock at its proposals to boost oil and gas as an interim measure while we ramp up renewable and nuclear generation.

But, before any of these points can be addressed, we must first pay attention to a glaring omission from the strategy: retrofit and energy efficiency. By a long stretch, the quickest route to energy security is to reduce our energy use by retrofitting our ageing housing stock.

Retrofit, insulation and other energy efficiency measures may not sound as glamorous and exciting as wind turbines or nuclear power plants, but these are essential pieces of the energy security puzzle that have been overlooked and need urgent attention from the government.

Retrofit solutions are quicker fix

Unlike long-term projects such as nuclear plants and wind farms, retrofit solutions are available now and can alleviate the energy crisis immediately.

While we wait for new projects to be completed and start producing energy, the strategy proposes to boost domestic oil and gas production. This is not an acceptable short-term measure, especially when our sector can so readily deliver energy efficiency solutions. The notion that we can delay our switch to low-carbon energy by burning more fossil fuels in the interim is misguided, especially in light of the IPCC’s latest ‘final warning’ climate change report.

“For the long haul to net zero, we need energy flexibility […] Our best bet for immediate results is to focus on retrofitting our leaky and draughty housing stock”

For the long haul to net zero, we need energy flexibility – a mix of low-carbon sources and a reduction in energy use. We need short- and medium-term wins to bring the cost of fuel down quickly and decarbonise the grid, rather than large spending on long-term projects that will do little to ease our emissions in the short term or provide room to develop new solutions in the future.

Our best bet for immediate results is to focus on retrofitting our leaky and draughty housing stock. By creating better incentives for energy efficient buildings, such as a home insulation scheme and an expansion of the Boiler Upgrade Scheme to include other low-carbon, energy saving solutions, consumers would see an immediate reduction in their fuel bills and carbon emissions would drop.

Of course, none of the measures discussed here or in the Energy Security Strategy would be possible without a skilled and competent workforce. The engineering services sector knows all too well the risks involved when the people delivering ambitious projects are not suitable for the job.

Who will fill the job vacancies?

And yet, no mention of upskilling or workforce training can be found in this latest strategy. Who will fill the tens of thousands of roles that will be created in the wind and nuclear sectors between now and the end of the decade?

Before it can answer that question, the wider construction sector urgently needs more support to raise training standards and upskill its people by boosting their training and qualifications. Contractors also need support to take on more apprentices and new entrants, who they can equip to operate at the highest standards.

Retrofitting requires a holistic understanding of the UK’s buildings, crossing over many professions and fields of expertise. The good news is that a lot of work has already been done to map out the retrofit process through the PAS 2030 and PAS2035 schemes, and the creation of British Standard 40104.

VAT cut could be extended

The recent removal of VAT on energy-saving measures, along with the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, was warmly welcomed, but the government has missed a trick by not extending the VAT cut to include electrical energy storage systems (batteries). These are key to giving households the ability to keep using their stored renewable energy when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.

With that said, the cut in VAT on the upfront cost of energy-efficiency measures simply removes a barrier to entry – this is not the strongest of incentives. What’s more, the VAT reduction is available for only five years, until 2027.

Much more work is needed to stir people into action, and give them long-term incentives to install more insulation, solar panels, heat pumps and batteries. In partnership with the Sustainable Energy Association, the ECA recently proposed an ‘ECO+ scheme’, which could build upon the government’s ECO4 grant scheme currently in place.

The energy crisis is affecting everyone in the UK now. While we support the government’s vision for the future, we urge them to focus their efforts on what can be done right now to help households and businesses reduce their energy consumption and cut carbon emissions.

Retrofit must be recognised as the first step on our path to true energy security and net zero. Without it, none of the other proposals in the British Energy Security Strategy can be nearly as effective.

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