Issues

Could Northern Ireland homes be amongst the worst in Europe?

Jonathan 3_ JK

If you are judging on thermal efficiency then the answer is yes

Jonathan Martindale, Business Development Manager at Phoenix Natural Gas, outlines the issues and how Northern Ireland can navigate its way out of the fuel poverty trap.

The picture is pretty bleak when looking at the energy efficiency of homes in the UK when compared with other European countries (Association for the Conservation of Energy, 2013).

It is widely reported that the regional fuel poverty rate in Northern Ireland is currently around 42 per cent despite the fact that according to the most recent Transparency report published by UReg, the UK as a whole has amongst the lowest gas and electricity prices in Europe and relatively high household incomes compared to the other countries.

In this context, the poor energy efficiency of our housing stock emerges as a major contributor to these problems.

What is currently being done to tackle the situation?

There are a number of energy efficiency schemes that directly target those households that are worst affected and with close to £30 million being made available to Northern Ireland homeowners annually, in theory we are not short of funds to make inroads into tackling the problem.

The Warm Homes Scheme has been the Department for Social Development’s lead tool in tackling fuel poverty since 2001, providing a range of energy efficiency measures to those that meet the means tested eligibility criteria.

The DSD are set to introduce changes to the Warm Homes scheme in 2014 and after a number of trials the Affordable Warmth Scheme is very much seen as the likely replacement with a consultation process currently underway.

The Affordable Warmth scheme seeks to improve the targeting of resources to assist those most at risk of fuel poverty. The department have been working with the University of Ulster, local councils and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive on the development of a new evidence based model for tackling fuel poverty.

Untitled-1 The proposed changes place the responsibility on local councils to engage with householders who have been identified as the most extreme fuel poor and encourage them to embrace energy efficiency measures by engaging with local contractors of the homeowner’s choice.

Although the thinking behind this targeted approach is logical and the trial results encouraging, the scheme has much to prove and in such an important area of delivery it must hit the ground running to ensure that the proposed model can best serve the local fight against fuel poverty. Previous schemes have relied heavily on the work of third party organisations such as Citizens Advice Bureau, community groups, politicians and indeed utility companies such as Phoenix played a key role in actively engaging on the ground with communities.

What additional work can be done in the area of fuel poverty?

Given the particularly high level of fuel poverty locally it’s no surprise that there are a number of influential bodies and personnel with a range of opinions on how best to help the situation.

Although it is positive to have a diverse range of opinions it is a concern that with such a mixed set of views and no one clear path being offered, homeowners can often be paralysed in making a decision and end up making no improvements to the energy efficiency measures in their home.

For this reason there is a desperate and urgent need for investment into a ‘one stop’ energy advice campaign from the Northern Ireland Executive that challenges homeowners to take action on the one factor of fuel poverty they can influence – the thermal efficiency of their home.

The campaign should be multifarious and overtly target action from homeowners on the most appropriate energy efficiency measures for their homes.

The organisation tasked with delivering this ‘one stop shop’ should be highly skilled in all areas of energy efficiency and be capable of making direct recommendations to homeowners as well as steering them through the process to take affirmative action. This includes introducing them to any grant assistance schemes that may be available and a follow up mechanism to ensure that those most in need take action.

More needs to be done to create a real shift in mind-set to encourage more home owners to stop the usual discounting or ignoring of future benefits of taking action now. Energy Performance certificates are a clear example of where a ‘more stick than carrot’ approach can be applied, where a commercial advantage can be gained if a property is brought up to minimum standard before it can be sold.

There has been no better example of government being able to stimulate action from homeowners than the local Boiler Replacement Allowance introduced in September 2012 and on-going until April 2015. The maximum grant allowance for this scheme is less than 50 per cent of the typical install price. However over 12,000 homes have taken action and replaced a 15-plus year old boiler, typically contributing an average of £1,000 to do so.

Of course there will be those in fuel poverty who simply cannot contribute to the costs of measures however with the right direction from local government there can be a wide range of schemes available that meet the needs of both those in extreme fuel poverty and those that have the ability to contribute towards measures – but this needs to be promoted – directed under one common theme and sit under one Energy Advice Agency.

Role of Natural Gas

Natural gas is currently available to over 360,000 properties in Northern Ireland and with the continued development of existing licences and plans in place to bring natural gas to the west of the province it is likely that in 2016 it will be available to over 430,000 properties in Northern Ireland.

Although there are a percentage of properties that do not have access to the natural gas network there are also close to 200,000 homes in Northern Ireland with access to the natural gas network who to date have not chosen to connect.

There are many reasons why Northern Ireland should have such a high predominance of fuel poverty, but the principal driver has been demonstrated to be the region’s reliance on oil for domestic heating (Liddell, Morris, Rae & McKenzie, 2011).

Given the widely accepted economic, environmental and lifestyle benefits of natural gas we must ensure that homeowners with natural gas available to their homes are given very clear advice and direction on these benefits over and above the commercial message that local utility companies invest in.

As far as I can see, if Northern Ireland can create a platform to encourage homeowners to embrace energy efficiency measures, provide good advice and a clear direction then we can make significant progress to better our current poor thermal performance standing in Europe.

Jonathan Martindale can be contacted at jonathan.martindale@phoenixnaturalgas.com

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