Achieving net zero in social housing by unlocking renewables and rethinking hot water

To meet the UK’s 2050 net zero goals, 26 million homes will need to be retrofitted with energy efficiency improvements. This includes 4.1 million socially rented properties, making energy efficiency an important challenge for social landlords. 43.1% of social housing in the UK have an energy performance certificate (EPC) rating of below C and need to be upgraded.

With these legislative targets looming and social tenants among the worst hit by the cost of living crisis, improving energy efficiency in social housing is vital for achieving both net zero and tenant satisfaction goals.

Reaching net zero presents a challenge for social landlords

RESAM’s recent Housing Sector Survey revealed that investing in existing stock is the top priority for 48% of senior leaders across the housing sector, whether to improve energy efficiency, building safety or decency of homes.

This is positive; however, decarbonisation is seen as the biggest challenge facing the sector. Social housing in England must reach an EPC rating of C by 2030 and although 72% of social housing providers have a plan in place to reach this, only 52% have started planning for net zero.

Improving homes to EPC C is an important step towards decarbonisation, but more investment, work and forward planning will be needed to meet the UK Government’s legally binding target to reach net zero by 2050. The Welsh Government is also aiming for net zero by 2050. In Scotland, the target for net zero is 2045 and the Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing means all social housing should have an EPC rating of B or above by the end of December 2035.

Financial capacity is the most pressing challenge for social housing providers looking to reach net zero, cited by 58% of respondents to the Housing Sector Survey. Other key barriers include technical limitations of existing stock, organisational capacity, and supply chain issues. This suggests there are numerous barriers between social housing providers and their net zero goals, and many are uncertain about how to proceed.

Opportunities and support for decarbonisation

Along with setting legislative targets for the decarbonisation of social housing, the UK Government has also aimed to address some of the barriers by providing funding to help social landlords with the costs. One example is the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (SHDF), which provides funding for energy efficiency improvements targeted towards low-income households in England living in social housing with an EPC rating of D or below.

The first wave of SHDF funding was extended to allow more time for social landlords to complete energy performance improvements. The second wave was announced in March 2023 with £778 million available for social landlords in England to upgrade the least efficient homes over the next two years. Energy efficiency is also set to be a main objective of the Regulator of Social Housing going forward.

To take advantage of these funding cycles, social landlords need to be able to rapidly respond to the availability of funding and select reliable technology for their housing stock, which will be successful in both meeting required energy efficiency standards and increasing tenant satisfaction.

Improving energy efficiency, tackling fuel poverty

Making homes more energy efficient is not only key to reducing carbon emissions and meeting net zero – it can also have a significant impact on energy bills, by reducing the amount of energy needed to heat and power a home. This is particularly relevant in social housing, where 17.3% of households are in fuel poverty.

Renters in the most inefficient social housing have to spend over 15% of their annual income on heating. In fact, upgrading the remaining socially rented homes to an EPC rating of C or above could save residents more than £700 million a year in heating costs. That’s an average saving of £567 a year for each household – an amount which could be transformational, considering many social tenants are vulnerable or on low incomes.

Although the July 2023 energy price cap set by Ofgem has reduced energy bills for many households, this is still over £1,000 a year more than pre-pandemic levels and may rise again over the winter. Improving the energy efficiency of socially rented homes can help protect tenants against future energy price rises, as well as helping meet net zero goals.

The importance of decarbonising heating and hot water

Heating and hot water account for 50% of overall global energy consumption, and over half of the average UK household’s energy costs. Decarbonising heating and hot water can therefore make a big difference to a home’s energy performance, and to the householder’s energy bills.

While the fabric-first approach favoured by funding mechanisms such as the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund can contribute to this by reducing heat loss, and in turn reducing heating demand, we will need to go further than this and look at heating itself to reach net zero.

Most homes in the UK are currently heated by gas. To reduce carbon emissions and make progress towards net zero, the UK Government plans to ban the installation of gas boilers in new homes from 2025 and to phase out gas boilers in all homes from 2035.

This means that within the next 12 years, social landlords will need to implement large-scale programmes to decarbonise heating and hot water. Installing new gas boilers will no longer be an option and energy performance requirements for social housing mean that renewable heating solutions such as heat pumps will become more attractive and practical.

Heat pumps are a very effective way to decarbonise space heating. To use the heat captured by a heat pump to provide hot water, however, often involves installation of a bulky hot water tank. This can be a challenge in social housing where space is often at a premium. Social landlords will therefore need a compact and reliable hot water solution which works with a range of energy sources including renewables, provides the high-pressure hot water expected by tenants to meet tenant satisfaction measures, and reduces energy consumption to help meet carbon reduction targets.

How to decarbonise hot water using Thermino heat batteries

Sunamp’s Thermino heat batteries are the ideal solution to decarbonise hot water in social housing, helping meet net zero goals. The batteries replace a hot water cylinder and can be charged by grid electricity or boilers, or by renewable energy from heat pumps and solar PV. This means the systems are future-proofed for compatibility with further energy efficiency improvements which social landlords may make to their housing stock.

The batteries are up to four times smaller than the equivalent hot water cylinder, making them ideal for social housing projects where space is a premium. Whether a social landlord is specifying a newbuild development or looking for a hot water solution to go with a heat pump in a space-constrained retrofit, a Thermino battery can provide low carbon hot water.

Tenant satisfaction is another key factor which a Thermino heat battery can address. The compact system provides high-pressure hot water on demand and can free up valuable cupboard space in tenants’ homes by replacing a bulky hot water cylinder.

The batteries contain Sunamp’s energy-dense phase change material, Plentigrade, and high-performance insulation for thermal efficiency. Running costs and energy consumption can be reduced as the battery can be charged with heat generated when electricity is cheaper, then released when needed.

Thermino heat batteries are quick and easy to install, meaning social landlords can retrofit properties without needing to disrupt and decant residents. The batteries require no regulatory annual maintenance, unlike gas boilers and unvented cylinders, and no legionella testing as they hold less than five litres of water. This also brings the benefit of lower maintenance costs.

This is a tried and tested technology, with over 25,000 systems already installed across the UK, including in social housing projects. Thermino heat batteries allowed Gentoo Group to replace gas boilers in 364 high-rise homes in Sunderland, instead using a compact heat battery and heat pump integrated system. This helped cut carbon emissions by an estimated 420 tonnes, or nearly 70% a year.

Want to find out more?

Sunamp’s specification team is ready to help. Get in touch to see how Thermino heat batteries can help social landlords reach net zero goals.

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