What the ‘Pioneer Places’ project tells us about maximising the uptake of energy efficiency measures

Author: Kerry Mashford 22/08/2013

In order to fulfil the UK’s obligation to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, it’s estimated that we need to carry out energy efficiency refurbishments on 700,000 properties per year, or at a rate of approximately 13,000 properties per week. Even without beginning to address the technical and logistical challenges this presents, it’s becoming increasingly clear that getting property owners and occupiers interested, let alone getting them to pay for improvements, is an (almost) insurmountable challenge.

I’m sure you’ll be familiar with DECC’s Green Deal, which aims to enable householders and business to benefit from improving their properties with energy efficiency measures, while paying for the savings through their fuel bills. This initiative is an important part of the Government’s strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling fuel poverty across the UK, and it’s vitally important that it succeeds one way or another in stimulating the necessary upgrades to existing buildings. In the early months since the launch of Green Deal, concern has grown over how to engage householders and capture their interest in energy efficient improvements (especially under Green Deal). Why is there such an apparently poor conversion rate? What is OK in terms of elapsed time between a Green Deal survey and the householder taking action?

Pioneer Places intelligence

Against this current situation, we should extract as much ‘intelligence’ as possible from the Pioneer Places projects, funded to enable selected local authorities in England to kick-start innovative, local Green Deal activity in both the domestic and non-domestic sectors. The National Energy Foundation acted as the local delivery partner for one of these projects (in Milton Keynes) with the Building Retrofit Network (a community interest company) being the public face of Green Deal. As one of 17 projects around the UK, we captured a tremendous amount of learning about how individuals and communities respond to the opportunities offered through energy efficient refurbishments and the real and perceived barriers they face. If we can turn this learning into effective responses, we can vastly improve the adoption of energy efficient retrofits and capitalise on all the associated environmental, economic and social benefits.

In the project we were involved in, several mechanisms were trialled to raise awareness and drum up interest -  six local events (over a 12-week period); show homes; doorstep surveys; a dedicated website; newspaper coverage (both advertising and editorial); leaflet deliveries; social media and promotional stands at a variety of different community events and facilities. The surveys were co-ordinated by the Sustainable Homes Survey and the National Energy Foundation, and residents were able to book them through a dedicated phone line, e-mail address, via the website and at events. We found that local newspaper coverage accounted for a large proportion of those requesting a full Green Deal assessment.

What drove people to consider energy efficiency measures?

Needless to say, at a time when household fuel costs are rising disproportionately against other living expenses, many wanted to reduce their fuel bills - or at least slow down their increase. The unusually cold weather around the time of the Pioneer Places project made people think more seriously about their use of energy. Others genuinely wanted to reduce their carbon footprint or increase their energy efficiency, especially in older, more inefficient houses. There were also other financial drivers with some people specifically wanting to take advantage of a Government scheme that allowed them to replace expensive items (such as boilers) that were coming to the end of their working life, with more modern and energy efficient models, using an easier payment plan.

For some people, improving their personal comfort was the main issue while for others it was a desire to improve their personal health. For a few, improving the look of their house and increasing the desirability of their local neighbourhood was important. In each case, the Pioneer Places project provided a mechanism for people to make informed decisions on the future energy efficiency of their buildings.

On average, those people who had a Green Deal Assessment through the Pioneer Places project could save £258 a year on their energy bills by carrying out the recommended measures and improve their home’s EPC rating from an average of 60 (band D) to 82 (band B).

This project in isolation does not provide a statistically significant sample to enable us to draw definitive conclusions, but staff involved in the project rapidly found themselves tailoring their approach to individuals, whether on the doorstep, over the ‘phone or at events, tapping into the interest and concerns of the individual. Some of these lessons have been fed into subsequent projects and initiatives which we are involved in, and back to DECC via the lead local authority for this project.

Energy efficiency engagement

The raft of innovative engagement approaches now being developed and rolled out by Green Deal providers, social housing providers and not-for profit bodies attests to the fact that there has been considerable learning from early attempts, particularly under the Green Deal banner. More sophisticated approaches are emerging.  Some of these wrap energy efficiency improvements into wider home improvement packages; many address the concerns of trust and disruption cited by householders in particular while others aim to improve the energy efficiency over time by piggy-backing on householder-led home improvement such as a new kitchen, adding a conservatory, etc. At the same time, social housing providers and local authorities are looking at reducing the overall cost per property through efficiencies of area-based approaches with associated process improvements.

To really maximise the benefit from the Pioneer Places projects, I’d like to see DECC gather together the learning and insight - especially heuristic from those at the ‘coal face’ across all 17 projects - and translate this into an open source resource that those working to stimulate the retrofit market can use to inform their approaches.