NERN blog

Insulated from the World

Hello NERN,


Aidan again. It’s been one of those weeks, you know, the kind of week where you want to settle down and do something, but keep on being interrupted by a ton of little things which need resolution, and need it now. In my case, the something I was settling down to do was the low-carbon heat report, and the ton of little things was everything else under the sun. Still, I’ve done a fair bit of stuff this week, attending a workshop for a forthcoming RAEng low-carbon heat report on Monday, with Jeff, meeting a senior professor from the University of Tokyo on Tuesday, and helping to facilitate a TSB smart grid meeting on Thursday. It’s been busy!

One of the slight drawbacks of being the junior partner of the UKERC Knowledge Exchange Team, to compensate for my youth and good looks, is that Jeff gets to choose his blog topic first. So, while he gets to enthral you with exciting tales of our adventures running a group of schoolchildren through the Energy Islands game, I get to write about insulation. “I bet you can’t make insulation interesting!” he guffawed, so I set out to prove him wrong. It’s a pretty hard road that I’m taking here.

So, insulation. Insulation itself is not interesting. However, it is absolutely vital – we’re not going to get anywhere near those pesky 2050 targets without a good deal more of it installed. The reason for this is pretty simple. We live in old, leaky buildings that spew heat like nothing else, and we’re still going to be living in them come 2050 – 70% of the houses we’ll be using in 2050 have already been built.  The UK has the oldest and worst housing stock in Europe – a large proportion of it was built over a hundred years ago, when people heated rooms with fires and insulation and energy efficiency were considered completely differently to now. The housing stock is mostly low-rise, meaning a lot of roof surface area for heat to escape out of. We didn’t have any regulations on insulation in new-build houses until 1965, and this didn’t start being actually a useful level until the mid-1990s. Planning regulations present a fair number of buildings, especially older ones, from putting in energy efficiency measures which may disrupt the character of the building. (UKERC HQ, for instance, being a listed building, can’t have double glazing installed in its many very large windows).  All of this cumulatively makes the UK one of the least energy-efficient housing stocks in Europe, and makes us use over 30% of all energy produced and carbon emitted in the UK in our homes, a figure the Select Committee on Environmental Audit estimates will rise to over 55% of our 2050 total.  

So, insulation and energy efficiency in your house is desperately important. More so, indeed than buying low-carbon technologies – the BedZED low-carbon homes project in Beddington showed that passive features such as insulation more reliably decreased carbon emissions than active low-carbon technologies such as solar thermal or heat pumps. In addition, a good deal of low-carbon heating technologies, as you can see in my blog of a few weeks back, don’t work well at all with poor insulation, as the heat they produce is at a lower temperature than conventional boilers.

Let’s talk insulation, then. What can you get, how much will it cost and what will it benefit you? Note that this is fairly irrelevant if you’re one of the UK’s large and growing rental population, as the burden for installing insulation falls to the landlord, and they have no incentive (yet) to improve their properties. You can rest easy though, as a portion of your therefore unnecessarily inflated energy bill goes to subsidise energy efficiency measures for those able to own their own houses. Anyway, if you own a house, and it’s fairly new (post 1920’s – the UK housing market has odd definitions of new), you probably have cavity walls. A cavity wall is designed to prevent damp by funnelling absorbed water down to the base of the wall. However, this big space doesn’t insulate very well, and thus is ripe to have some solidifying insulative goo sprayed into it. Doing so will cost you on average £500, and will save you about £110 on your bills a year (figures from the Energy Saving Trust). If you live in an older house with solid walls, you can’t do this. Your only option is to mount a sheet of insulation to the wall. On the inside, this has the disadvantage of making your rooms a bit smaller, and will cost you £7,000 or so for insulation, saving you £370 a year on bills. If you want it outside, it’ll cost you around £12,000 due to the need to make it weatherproof, and you may not get planning permission if it ‘damages the character’ of the area. (Couldn’t have that, now could we?).  

Loft insulation is a good way to claw back some cash super efficiently, costing you about £250 installed and saving you around £145 a year, It can be even cheaper if you install it yourself, if you’re one of those have-a-go, DIY sorts of people. Double-glazing, that old pursuit of door-to-door salesmen, is a pretty essential purchase if you don’t have it already, as it gives you not just energy reduction, but draft and noise reduction as well.  It can save you around £135 a year, but costs for double glazing installation vary wildly – average appears for £300 a pane, but it can vary wildly depending on style, who installs it and what material you use for the window frame.  

Once you’ve got all of that installed, only then can you feast your eyes on that ground-source heat pump you’ve been desperate for. If you can’t afford all of this, as many can’t, energy suppliers have a obligation, known as the Carbon Emission Reduction Target (CERT).  This is a target for gas and electricity suppliers to achieve a reduction of carbon emissions from the customers they supply (currently 293 MtC by the end of 2012). They are supposed to achieve the by helping and subsidising their customers install energy efficiency measures, such as loft and cavity-wall insulation and draught-proofing. But, as you might expect, the scheme came under criticism due to suppliers mass-mailing low-energy light bulbs to meet their commitments. These have now been mostly excluded from the scheme. In 2013, the CERT will be replaced by the Energy Company Obligation (ECO) scheme.

There’s also the Green Deal, a way for you to install energy efficiency measures and low-carbon generation in your home with no upfront cost, paying off the loan through your electricity bill. The difference between the Green Deal and a conventional loan is that the Deal is tied to your property, not to you, so anyone who buys the property will take on the loan. This is meant to ensure that people feel comfortable taking out decade-long loans for improvements to their house, knowing that if they move, they won’t need to continue paying, as only the people benefiting will. It’ll come into force in Autumn 2012. For the long-suffering renters, the forthcoming Energy Bill claims that, by 2016, tenants will have the powers to demand that landlords make reasonable energy efficiency improvements, and local authorities the powers to insist this happens. As energy bills continue to spiral upwards, I think there may be significant interest….

Anyway, that is the exciting and fun-filled world of insulation. Remember, it’s boring, it’s important and it’s here for you! Have a good weekend.