Wednesday, February 28

The UK needs better insulated homes to free us from Putin and the fossil fuel giants | Helena Bennett

With every new premiership comes new trials and tribulations. No one will be more aware of this than Liz Truss and her de ella fresh cabinet, who have little choice but to hit the ground running with a plan to relieve the British public from the clutches of extortionate gas prices that have caused energy bills to spiral.

The cost of living crisis is due almost entirely to Putin’s war in Ukraine and his unrivaled chokehold on Europe’s gas supply. Soaring energy bills in the UK are being driven by international markets. Not, as some seem to think, because of our inability to source more gas and increase its supply. Expanding drilling in the North Sea and fracking the English countryside would have negligible impact on the global shortfall and gas prices.

Continuing to pursue fossil fuels to meet an impossible end is fruitless, and panders only to the oil and gas industries, which continue to exaggerate the scale of reinvestment in “clean energy security” (despite what their well-placed advertising around Westminster tube station might imply).

Truss is likely to feel emboldened to make rash, unsustainable decisions about how to sort this mess out. The relentless fossil-fuel lobby will be warning her that cranking down our gas usage would be a serious error that will only worsen the impact on an already faltering economy. And short term support packages, although desperately needed, won’t tackle the underlying problem. A plan to offer £130bn to households is a sticking plaster on a gaping, growing wound. It’s not a stable, reliable solution that adequately responds to the unknown future risks of the international energy market.

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The truth is that getting off gas is the only genuine way to become immune to its unpredictable supply and price. All the indications are that the cost of gas will remain volatile for years to come and putting out a fire by adding more logs to the wood burner is completely nonsensical.

The challenge of “managing energy demand” is not appealing to those in charge, compared to the relatively easy task of building renewable power. This is best illustrated by how offshore wind, thanks to government backing a decade ago, has seen its price fall to nine times cheaper than gas. Meanwhile home insulation funding was in large part scrapped as part of David Cameron’s axing of the “green crap”, and rates have plummeted since 2012, leaving the UK with some of the draftiest homes in Europe. But the government can no longer ignore the impact that reducing energy waste would have on costs. The primary way to reduce bills is to properly insulate people’s homes.

Of course, there’s an upfront cost. The government’s climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee, estimates that the total cost of upgrading UK homes will be £250bn. But the benefits to be reaped are rich. Homes rated with energy performance certificate (EPC) band F are likely to have gas bills £968 higher than homes in band C, according to one study, and moving just one band, from D to C would knock £420 a year off a household’s energy bills. But, in the face of yet another unprecedented crisis, most people will need help with the upfront investment required, even if it’s likely to pay for itself in the long run.

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There is much this government can do to begin the rapid rollout of insulation measures that help keep people warm and cut energy bills. A recent cockcommissioned by the Green Alliance, found that nine in 10 people agree that more knowledge about insulation is needed to encourage people to upgrade their homes. A public information campaign to encourage people to adopt energy saving measures would be an excellent place to start but, despite rumors of such a campaignnothing was announced by the prime minister last week.

Households need a properly funded program of rapid insulation, especially those who are fuel poor, who are struggling to pay bills. Alongside direct financial aid to scale up retrofit efforts, fiscal measures should be introduced to invigorate investment in insulation, such as concessionary loans to homeowners and regulating green mortgages allowing equity release to fund measures.

This September is sandwiched between recent record-breaking heatwaves and the coming winter. As well as helping people to stay warm during colder months, insulation offers respite from baking hot temperatures too, by keeping buildings cooler.

There is now an unprecedented consensus on the need to bring energy bills down long term, and this is encapsulated in the newly formed coalition Warm This Winterrun by a group of leading organisations, including Save the Children, Oxfam and Greenpeace.

The fossil fuel industry is parasitic; it has gained £170bn in windfall profits during this crisis while the rest of the economy battens down the hatches ahead of an imminent recession. The triple threat of lower bills, better energy security, and lower emissions offered by upgrading people’s homes is a risk to the industry; when insulated homes need less energy to stay warm, so begins the demise of oil and gas.

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