David Williams, VP of Transactional Business UK & Ireland at Schneider Electric, looks at the reasons why we need to look closer to home if we’re to beat the energy crisis this year.
From political turmoil to an erratic economy, recent headlines can make it easy to forget that the UK remains an exceptionally enterprising country. But after a tough decade on the world stage, it still ranks fourth on the Global Innovation Index and leads Europe in terms of soft power, behind only the United States worldwide.
One area in which the UK is spearheading innovation is home energy. Investors ploughed over $1.5bn into British energy tech businesses in 2021, while as many as 489 UK start-ups focused their efforts on building new tools to help us transition towards a net-zero future.
Record energy price rises and concurrent advancements in energy-saving technologies have also made “what’s your energy bill?” a part of daily British conversation. Now, everyone knows exactly how much they’re paying, what they’re paying for, and where their money is going.
Energy companies and activists have been waiting for this golden moment, in which each and every consumer is taking full notice of the energy they consume and create. But as the world looks set to miss the much-vaunted 1.5°C climate target, UK energy progress must not slow. We need to harness consumers’ new energy awareness and take impactful steps towards implementing efficiency across every building and home.
So, let’s take a look at how energy evolved throughout the last year and ways we can move forward to tackle the dual energy crises of skyrocketing bills and climate change.
Energy’s annus horribilis
This time last year, conversations across dinner tables, pubs, and boardrooms often still addressed the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on labour shortages and the economy. But now, consumers and organisations are entirely focused on navigating the energy crisis and a transition to greener, more reliable power. After all, who would’ve thought we’d face energy blackouts in this modern world?
As a result, homeowners are taking energy efficiency improvement far more seriously. They want greater control of their energy usage and bills, realising that even small behavioural changes can add up to big cost-saving wins. This comes as homes in England and Wales only scored an average 2022 energy efficiency rating of band D, meaning UK housing stock remain some of the least-efficient in Europe.
Fortunately, improvement is on the horizon. Many property developers building new homes are now switching to a ‘fabric first’ approach. This is not to mean that homeowners need to completely renovate their homes, but fabric first is far more effective than relying on post-construction installations, like solar panels or energy-saving lightbulbs, to mitigate fundamental inefficiencies.
Plus, the UK government is putting policies into place to make it easier for everyday homeowners to get more control of their energy. Examples include the Home Upgrade Grant and the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, which features £1.8bn of funding targeted to low-income households. So, what more can we do in 2023?
Navigating the year ahead
Unfortunately, the energy crisis, coupled with wider inflation and a worldwide recession, means that 2023/24 is set to be an especially tough period for UK citizens. So, it’s up to industry leaders in the energy market to promote hope and positivity, and help homeowners realise that this is a new opportunity to save energy, money, and even the planet.
However, vulnerable families need answers today. So, support must go beyond costly retrofitting or electrification, and instead towards educating energy users on how to get the best out of the tools they already have, such as connected heat and home energy management. Energy industry leaders must offer energy freedom for everyone – from new-builds to character properties, high-income to lower-income households.
This doesn’t have to involve instantly bringing every building towards net zero, either. In the current energy crisis, where every pound, penny, and kilowatt counts, we must focus on immediate incremental improvements which bring concurrent benefits to both our purses and our planet.
So, what are the low-cost, high-impact strategies that homeowners can harness to upgrade their energy management now, and in the future?
Top tips to save on energy
First up are smart meters, perhaps the simplest, most widely available energy-saving installation of all. Like traditional meters, they measure energy usages such as gas and electricity. However, while automatically sending this information to a homeowners’ supplier, they also display in real-time how much energy is being used and how much it’s costing. Then, by monitoring this data, energy users can adjust their power consumption habits to reduce their bills and carbon footprint. And as the UK government has required energy suppliers in England, Scotland and Wales to provide smart meters to their customers, homeowners can arrange for a smart meter installation free of charge.
Meanwhile, the emergence of heat pumps offers a breakthrough in heating buildings more efficiently. These work by extracting heat from the air outside or from the ground and pumping it into the home. A typical air source heat pump boasts an average efficiency rate of 300%, meaning it produces three units of energy for every unit it absorbs. In comparison, modern gas boilers can only reach a rate of 94%. In many cases, a heat pump can replace a boiler entirely and provide all the hot water and heating a homeowner needs.
The future of home sustainability
It’s no wonder, then, that in its first global assessment of heat pumps, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has recently concluded they are the ‘the central technology in the global transition to secure and sustainable heating’. The UK government is again offering financial support, this time through its Boiler Upgrade Scheme, which could see homeowners access grants or interest-free loans towards a heat pump.
This ‘home-by-home’ change, enabled by individual improvements, is an important first step in our collective net-zero transition. However, it also requires resources, and time, that we don’t really have. Rather than a close-minded mentality, we may also need to adopt a common strategy in which we tackle the issue together. This is where smart microgrids come in.
We can transform the way we consume, produce and store energy by aggregating communities onto their own microgrids, in which renewable energy generation, usage, and storage are shared between a group of homes. Grid software monitors all the network’s different elements, like solar panels, heat pumps, and even electric vehicle charging, to manage any site-wide peaks and troughs and reduce dependency on the national grid.
After years of planning, microgrid communities are finally beginning to emerge. Water Lilies, a 33-home development in Bristol, is billed as the UK’s first ‘domestic housing microgrid with battery storage’. The homes share an integrated energy generation and management system and a grid-scale battery, resulting in an ‘A’ rating for energy efficiency and a net-zero housing model that could be successfully adopted across the country and the world.
In fact, larger microgrid developments, such as Bridport Cohousing’s 53-home project in Dorset, are already underway. By building and retrofitting homes upon microgrids, we can collectively harness waste heat, reduce energy lost through transmission lines, and enjoy ultra-resilient, zero-emission power supplies.
Achieving energy freedom
As utility bills soar to record highs, gone are the days when homeowners could turn on the heating without a thought, or organisations could swallow millions of kilowatts. Now, some high-energy-usage businesses even require government support to pay for their electricity costs. The energy landscape of old is changing, so we need to change the way we engage with it.
Instead, it’s time for society to move from a mindset of consumption to prosumption, in which we produce as much energy as we use.
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