We can all relate to that heart sinking moment when you open up a letter and it’s a bill. It’s usually obvious from the envelope, but until it has been opened there is always a glimmer of hope that it could be a cash prize or a wedding invitation or something equally exciting. Usually, it’s a gas or electricity bill and they don’t come cheap. In fact, on average we spend £1,200 a year to heat and power our homes. Not only is the use of gas and electricity expensive, but it also impacts our environment and it is for these reasons that eco-friendly homes are becoming increasingly popular.
Properties with low energy running costs have been around for some time and, as the technology has improved, they have become a much more practical and affordable option. Earlier this year, a house was launched, designed by architect Bill Dunster OBE, which promises residents no bills – in fact, it has actually been named ‘Zero Bills’! This has been achieved through very high insulation levels to reduce the need for space heating and integrated solar panels to produce electricity. Zero Bills homes actually have the potential to generate more energy than they consume and it has even been suggested that excess energy could be used to power an electric car.
Whilst Zero Bills sounds appealing, it is by no means the only option. It came hot on the heels of the 3 bedroom ‘Solcer House’ which was built by Cardiff University in early 2015 and promised to produce an income of £175 by exporting energy to National Grid. It is capable of generating and storing power, created in solar panels and a heat pump, to be used around the house or exported to the National Grid for cash. When combined with a number of materials used in the building which make it well insulated, the running costs for the house are very low indeed. The property took only 16 weeks to construct at a cost of just £125,000. If such properties were built on a mass scale, the designers estimated at the time that the costs could be reduced to under £100,000 making it a genuine and attractive option for house builders.
Having no energy bills at the same time as minimising your carbon footprint can only be seen as positive. It got us thinking that it would be particularly life changing to people in social housing who are often some of society’s poorest people. Although many social tenants may receive housing benefit to cover their rent, this does not usually cover charges for gas and electricity and such a saving could have an exceptional impact on their lives. On a limited income, the cost of heating your home or having hot water can present a real challenge and yet without energy efficient measures in place there is little that can be done to keep these costs down. Those with limited incomes are amongst those groups that are least likely to have broadband internet access at home and yet, internet access is crucial to unlocking lower prices and lower tariffs on a number of other services. Many social tenants are charged a fixed rate for gas and electricity within their service charges on the property so no matter how careful or lavish they are, they will still have to fork out the same cost.
The cost of energy bills pushes many households, in particular those with elderly or disabled residents who are most likely to be at home throughout the day, into ‘fuel poverty’. It can also lead others to using foodbanks as they have to make a choice between buying food or putting money on their pre-paid meter.
Given the pressures on personal budgets for the poorest in society, and that this group is disproportionately represented within social housing, we would suggest that it should be a target for all authorities to make social housing the most energy efficient possible, and ideally future social homes should be designed as Zero Bills homes. This would enable those on the lowest incomes to avoid high energy costs that they cannot afford, or that leave them with tough choices about whether to pay a bill or buy a meal. However, without imposing a duty to do so or passing tougher regulations, it is unlikely that the costs of upgrading or building such homes will be palatable to local authorities or housing associations.
If the cost of building energy efficient family homes is really as little as £100,000 for a 3 bedroom home, shouldn’t there be a duty for local authorities or housing associations to build these homes instead of homes with the usual running costs? There is even the possibility that the local authority could subsidise the cost of the building over the longer term by benefiting from the additional income stream of selling excess energy to National Grid in addition to the rental income they would receive. In periods when the properties are empty, they could still be generating an income through the sale of such energy.
It is time to take seriously not only the environmental impact of our homes, but also the strain placed on family budgets by high running costs for gas and electricity. With pay to stay around the corner, and with wages remaining low and likely to feel more pressure due to Brexit, it is likely that personal household budgets will remain tight for some time. When good and viable options exist for ensuring that we can have houses that low income families would find affordable to run, isn’t it time to ensure that happens?
The progress of such technology gives reason for optimism. Let’s hope the government reconsiders the position and imposes stricter building requirements as well as revisiting the idea of affordable housing to include running costs.