Deal breaker

If the green deal is to be a success, investment in energy efficiency must be coupled with resident education. It’s all about changing our behaviour, explains Steve Malone

Steve Waterworth, energy hub manager, leads a tour of Salford University’s ‘energy house’, Number One Joule Terrace. The full-size terraced house, which sits inside a laboratory, was built to monitor domestic energy consumption within older housing stock and act as a test bed for new materials, behavioural studies and innovation linked to sustainability.

The Department for Energy and Climate Change is about to go to consultation on one of the most controversial aspects of its energy bill – the green deal.

The aim of this framework is to provide residents with a ‘loan’ to make energy efficiency improvements to their homes – money that will be recovered through fuel bill savings. With much still to be settled on the delivery of the green deal, one key factor that needs more focus is behaviour change.

Tenants take part in a workshop organised by social enterprise Fusion 21.

Making the green deal work relies not just on improving the materials of a building but on the actions of its residents, before and after energy efficiency upgrades. Without the education of social tenants, private renters and owner-occupiers around retrofit technology and how they can save energy, the green deal has a much slimmer chance of delivering the return on investment needed to make it work. Good quality energy saving advice has an important role to play here but a recent investigation by Which? showed that poor ‘green’ advice is very common, especially when linked to product sales.

Posing as a potential customer, Which? invited eight companies to assess a house for cavity wall insulation (CWI). An independent expert had already concluded that the detached three-bedroom house in Wales wasn’t suitable for CWI. Yet all eight assessors said that it was, with none warning that it might put the property at risk of damp. All eight inspections were rated as ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’ by the independent expert, with assessors failing to carry out essential insulation checks.

The government is already talking about ‘accreditation’ for those green deal advisers who will assess the potential investment and energy bill savings of a home and the potential to ‘repay’ investment cost through energy bill reductions. But other sectors with supposedly robust accreditation schemes have still had problems when advice is linked to sales incentives.

As the investigation by Which? revealed, advisers working on commission may over-sell the advantages of retrofit technology and focus less on the thorny issue of behaviour change.

Talking to residents about the savings that can be generated by a new boiler or double glazing is much easier than explaining how tenants must also change their actions if they want to see a significant reduction in fuel bills. To tackle this issue we need to see a co-ordinated, certified approach to the procurement of independent advice and education.

Salford University’s Steve Waterworth guides tenants around Number One Joule Terrace during Climate Change Week.

Evidence of the impact that independent advice can make is already there. Research from the Worthing Homes Relish Project demonstrated how combining upgrades with energy advice and education significantly outweighs the impact of works alone. Similarly, the Retrofit Reality project undertaken by Gentoo in Sunderland proved that residents’ behaviour makes a big difference to the amount of CO2 a home produces. Gentoo concluded that a large amount of engagement was beneficial so all stakeholders were kept fully updated. Both projects highlight the significance of resident behaviour in reducing fuel bills and the vital role advice can play in this.

Procurement for Housing and Fusion 21 recently looked further at the support and advice tenants are currently receiving from their social landlords. They surveyed 251 social housing tenants about their energy saving habits in partnership with Salford University and TPAS (Tenant Participation Advisory Service). The aim was to better understand tenant behaviour and motivations around fuel saving and to boost the impact of future retrofit improvements.

Research revealed that social landlords are making some progress in advising tenants around retrofit but more consultation is needed as well as further investment in resident education.

Although 94% of respondents had seen some energy efficiency upgrades made to their properties, nearly 25% received no support from their landlord post-installation. Just under one third of respondents were either not happy or very unhappy with the level of support they received from their landlord once retrofit upgrades were installed and 31% of tenants received written instructions only.

However, 30 respondents did receive a home demonstration and eight tenants received more than one home visit.

Some 10% of tenants reported substantial fuel bill savings but 36% said they didn’t know whether their fuel bills had reduced and 25% reported that savings were not noticeable. When asked this question, residents gave their immediate answer, their perception of any fuel bill savings, as opposed to providing actual figures from their bills. The survey was not about the actual effectiveness of energy efficiency technology, it was about tenants’ perceptions around the effectiveness of upgrades.

As one quarter of all respondents didn’t feel savings were noticeable this indicates that some social landlords may need to improve their follow-up communication with tenants, gathering savings data and publicising the results of energy efficiency upgrades more widely.

Another issue raised by this finding is that residents may feel the upgrades will make savings for them as opposed to them having to physically change their behaviour to reduce energy use. Some landlords may need to address this further – educating their residents that upgrades alone won’t generate the biggest savings and that tenants need to change their behaviour to generate more significant financial savings.

This ties in with another issue around ‘behaviour bounce-back’ – something that might particularly affect people on low incomes who don’t use their heating much and already have low fuel bills. Once upgrades have been made to their property, residents’ behaviour may change as they have the comfort of knowing their properties are better insulated. As a result they are likely to increase their energy use, just like someone with a new car that does more miles to the gallon might use it more.

High quality independent advice could tackle this problem and help tenants realise the significant role they must play in bringing their fuel bills down. This is key to making the green deal work – the housing sector needs to work harder to communicate the link between behaviour change and fuel bill savings to residents. We need to connect people to the financial implications of their energy choices.

A number of housing organisations are already developing initiatives to support residents around energy saving. In some developments, tenants can see how their upgraded homes will look like by viewing pilot ‘green’ homes, other landlords allow residents to indicate their preference on green technology through open days. Those tenants who might not attend open days are targeted through community champions who give information and advice at local events and activities – keep-fit classes, playgroups or resident coffee mornings.

But more still needs to be done to involve tenants in the retrofit process. Although Procurement for Housing and Fusion 21’s survey found that 46% of tenants felt their concerns around retrofit works were well considered or very well considered by their landlord, a significant 13% felt their views were either ignored or only partly considered. This needs to change if fuel bill savings are to be maximised.

PfH and Fusion21 are now developing a retrofit procurement framework that will help social landlords provide high quality independent advice to their tenants before and after properties are upgraded.

But everyone in the retrofit supply chain, from social housing officers to product suppliers, fitters and property assessors needs to get involved in influencing tenant behaviour to make this work. Without this holistic approach to resident education the green deal has less chance of success.

  • More information about PfH’s project with Fusion 21 can be found here and here.
  • Green deal


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