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Powering Houses in the Zero Carbon Future


Written by:

John Jackson

Built Environment Editor

Business News Wales


Growing up in the 1970s, my home had the most sophisticated and effective energy usage monitor imaginable – Dad.

In our household it really was a Dad thing and he’d be constantly barking at me, my siblings and even my mother to: “Turn that light off” or “close the door.” You had precisely the time it took to enter the house for the front door to be open, and not a second more. It soon became second nature to turn my bedroom light off whenever I left the room, and this practice of switching off at every given opportunity has stayed with me for life.

As you can probably guess, Dad was equally efficient when it came to managing the central heating, and I’ll confess there were times when the gas fire was called into action when he wasn’t around. How’s that for an act of teenage rebellion. Whereas in my student days, there was never any argument about the heating, our shared flat in Sheffield didn’t have any, and on a winter's morning I soon learnt how to get up, washed and dressed in record time. Although, as a student this wasn’t really an issue as I knew it was only a temporary arrangement. However this experience did make me appreciate how important it is to have a warm home, and now whenever we talk about heating or powering a home I know it's critically important to ensure we take into account the increasing numbers of people who are living in fuel poverty.

In terms of domestic energy usage, how we heat and power our homes has to change to meet our carbon emission targets. Yet when we talk about having to “change” to meet targets there is a risk of making it sound as if creating zero carbon homes is an unwelcome extra cost and burden for the sector. This in turn could lead to the adoption of the minimum measures needed to meet the target, whilst potentially creating homes that are not comfortable to live in.

Alternatively, we can look at this as an exceptional opportunity to embrace renewable energy and innovative design to transform the way we build, heat and power our homes. Undeniably it will cost more than the combi gas boilers and straightforward hooking-up to the national grid we’re accustomed to. These are the traditional ways we’ve energised our homes, and as they are generally cost effective it's also allowed us to build and live in energy inefficient homes.

In Wales we have a diverse range of housing that includes some of the oldest housing stock in Europe, and this will be reflected in the approaches to creating energy efficient homes taken by:

  • Volume private housebuilders
  • Smaller specialist private housebuilders
  • Self-builders
  • Housing associations for both their new build and retrofit
  • Private rented sector landlords
  • Individual homeowners

To help ensure we achieve consistent standards across the board it would be beneficial to have a reliable means of measuring the carbon emissions of housing. This need was explained in a recent article for The Planner, by architect Andy Sutton, co-founder of Sero Homes.

Witnessing new net zero carbon housing being built in Wales also helps to illustrate what can be achieved for domestic housing. One already well known example is the Parc Hadau development by Sero Homes in Pontardawe. This has attracted significant national and international media coverage, including this example from The Guardian. Attention of this nature is positive for Wales as it shows our country to be one of the leaders in creating the type of new housing that will be needed for our sustainable future.

Including both new build and retrofit, The Homes as Power Stations project, as part of the Swansea Bay City Deal, was announced in June 2020. This £505m project will retrofit 7,000 properties with energy efficient technology, and an additional 3,300 new build homes will also benefit from the project. In terms of timing, this volume of activity also has the potential to help mitigate the impact of the recession by sustaining jobs in the construction sector. This project, along with other zero carbon new build and retrofits, should also result in increased demand for appropriately skilled workers. To meet this demand appropriate training and apprenticeship programmes will need to be made available across Wales.

There is a growing momentum for building and updating homes in ways that reduce their impact on the environment. To ensure housing is as energy efficient as possible there is also a need to focus on how we build houses, and this itself would benefit from increased research and development into home building. Architect, and founder of design and construction educational charity MOBIE, George Clarke explains this in more detail as part of a recent podcast with ecodan that talks about the future of home heating in the UK.

Even when we find ourselves living in zero carbon homes, there will still be a place for human intervention to help reduce consumption. Although, unlike my experience of growing-up with an energy savvy parent, today it may well be the environmentally conscious children who demand their parents turn the lights off.