Tackling fuel poverty in UK’s social housing: the urgent need for efficient energy storage

In the UK, fuel poverty continues to cast a dark shadow over the lives of millions of households, fueling social inequality and compromising well-being, particularly for social housing residents. Fuel poverty is when more than 10% of household income has to be spent on fuel to maintain an adequate level of warmth and comfort, and it hits vulnerable groups disproportionately.

HM Government’s Department of Energy Security & Net Zero’s annual fuel poverty statistics tell us that an estimated 13.4 per cent of households (3.26 million) live in fuel poverty in England under the Low Income Low Energy Efficiency (LILEE) metric, up from 13.1 per cent in 2021. This figure is expected to go up to 14.1 per cent this year, despite Ofgem’s announcement of a lower cap on energy bills.  And with Russia’s restriction of gas supplies to Europe, typical energy bills have also soared to over £2,000, nearly double the pre-crisis level. Back in October 2021, households paid an average of £1,271 annually for gas and electricity.

While the new reality is largely grim for people all over, the financial strain on vulnerable social housing residents is incalculable. Social housing residents live in the least energy-efficient houses and end up using 17.3% of their income to pay for heating—equivalent to two months’ worth of their annual income.


This has a direct impact on the registered providers (RPs) of social housing


As a part of ‘Give fuel poverty a voice’ campaign, Inside Housing partnered with Aico to run a survey meant to explore the steps landlords needed to take to tackle fuel poverty. 80% of the social housing landlords said they have seen an increase in residents actively asking for financial support since April 2022.

In addition, 34% of respondents said up to 30% of their housing stock had an EPC rating below Band C, while 17% said up to a third of their homes had an EPC rating below Band E.

Typically, in a social housing scenario, a property with an EPC of Band E can have an annual bill almost twice that of a property in Band C. National Housing Federation research showed that upgrading the remaining social rent homes to EPC A, B or C could save residents more than £700m a year in heating, equal to an average saving of £567 per household per year.

In the wake of the cost of living crisis, then, social landlords have found themselves stretched due to the increased support that they had to provide over the past year, just so that residents don’t cut back on their essentials.

The gap between energy-efficiency improvements and energy storage


National Energy Action’s long-standing mantra has been that the sustainable way of tackling fuel poverty is improving home energy efficiency.. The UK government’s response is the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund aimed at improving energy efficiency standards in low-income social housing with EPC D ratings or below.

However, notably absent in HM government’s home energy efficiency improvement strategies—whether to tackle fuel poverty, meet decarbonisation deadlines, and even reducing the reliance on grid—is focus on energy storage.

The Energy Networks Association has urged the UK government to revise the British Energy Security Strategy and incorporate a comprehensive energy storage strategy by the end of this year. Despite the recent £80m funding awarded by the government for innovative projects in long-term energy storage, it is noteworthy that energy storage has not been a prominent focus in the government’s agenda for improving energy efficiency and decarbonising the housing sector. As a result, the lack of awareness surrounding energy storage diminishes its potential as an immediate and effective solution, particularly among RPs of social housing.

Inside housing has identified that PV battery systems are beneficial for RPs in addressing fuel poverty and mitigating any strain on local networks. There is, though, a concern related to the technical challenges of expanding intermittent renewable energy generation, and therefore, the publication has called on businesses, supply chain companies, and research institutions to develop and enhance products and services that can help RPs achieve these objectives.


Addressing that technical challenge through innovation and integration of new technology


What can social landlords do to alleviate fuel poverty?
Improving the energy efficiency of their housing stock will reduce running costs for fuel-poor households, as will optimising energy consumption.

Reliable energy storage systems, such as electric or thermal batteries, can store electric or thermal energy during periods of low-demand from renewables and release it during peak hours, enabling residents to utilise cheaper electricity tariffs.

By capturing and utilising this stored energy, fuel-poor households can reduce their reliance on expensive heating alternatives, such as combi boilers, lowering their energy bills.


Sunamp’s thermal battery storage system unlocking a solution to fuel poverty


When Sunamp, working with the University of Edinburgh, resolved the age-old stability issue linked with phase-change materials (PCMs) based on salt hydrates, it introduced the first-of-its-kind commercially viable residential thermal energy storage systems.
By addressing that problem, they paved the way for developing & patenting new formulations that efficiently and reliably store heat on demand, enabling the creation of energy-dense, compact heat stores.

Sunamp’s Thermino heat batteries contain this patented Plentigrade PCM and can harness energy from almost any source—directly from solar PV and grid electricity and indirectly from boilers and heat pumps—to provide incredibly high-efficiency storage and release heat for hot water on demand. And unlike any other hydronic heat batteries, or any other energy storage systems, Sunamp’s Thermino range captures and stores enormous heat per unit volume of material.

They are sustainable and offer the advantage of not requiring expensive or rare components. Sunamp’s Plentigrade PCM heat batteries have been tested for over 40,000 cycles and have showed no deterioration of the material. 40,000 cycles roughly translates to 50+ years of heat battery usage, if used twice a day. That’s peerless reliability and dependability, something particularly precious in an energy storage unit in a social housing residence, especially when paired with renewables that may have intermittency issues  thanks to lull in the wind or no sunshine.

As a part of their Longer Duration Energy Storage Demonstration programme, the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) has backed Sunamp for its project EXTEND, which aims at overcoming lulls in renewable energy generation in social housing and lowering the tariffs by providing demand flexibility and supporting the grid through its large-capacity, energy dense heat batteries.

There’s another key component that’s vital when considering improving energy efficiency, and that’s heat losses. Forget about the age-old electric hot water tank with a red puffer jacket, even a modern-day hot water cylinder can suffer heat lossed of 1.344 kWh/day. If you were to swap an old cylinder for a Thermino heat battery, you’d end up saving 940 kWh of electricity each year, thanks to the intensive vacuum insulation in the heat batteries. This is also why the Thermino gets a class-leading A+ energy efficiency standard rating, both in the UK and Europe.


How do heat batteries make a positive impact on energy bills and fuel prices?


Thermino heat batteries are being used in thousands of social housing homes in the UK  to optimise renewables, tackle intermittency issues, allow for easy retrofitting and successfully combat heat loss woes. Take the case of EastHeat project in 2016, backed by the Scottish Government’s Local Energy Challenge fund, which saw Sunamp heat batteries installed in 625 homes, across rural, semi-rural and urban settings in Edinburgh, Lothian, and Falkirk. These were homes with no gas connections, and the batteries were fitted to harness and store energy from solar PV and heat pumps.

The EastHeat report conclusively shows the significant impact heat batteries have had in tackling fuel poverty simply by harnessing the excess energy that would have flown back into the grid, with no benefit to the homeowners. Not only did most of the 1& 2 bed properties benefit from ‘free’ hot water, but the heat batteries also drove a much higher PV consumption. And above all else, it led to unprecedented hot water comfort, something truly invaluable for vulnerable residents. For housing associations, on the other hand, costs have been significantly reduced as there is no maintenance required, and they were also able to free up space in the home.

Source: New Phase-change Materials for Domestic Heat Storage, Low Carbon Heating and Reduced Fuel Poverty | School of Chemistry

Joan, one of EastHeat residents, said “It saves a lot of money, put it that way. You’re getting your hot water for free. Before that, this house was a really cold, cold house…It makes a lovely difference.”

In another pioneering tower block gas replacement project in northern England, as a part of Core364 programme, Sunamp heat batteries were retrofitted into 364 apartments enabling the replacement of old combi-boilers with heat pumps in the largest gas replacement programme in the UK which was led by EQUANS. The small size of the heat batteries allowed for swift installation of the heat pump system and the batteries snugly fit into a cupboard that couldn’t accommodate an unvented cylinder and the associated pipework. All of this was made possible without decanting a single resident.
Early results confirmed by Sustainability Manager at EQUANS show the bills for heating & hot water from communal rooms in the project have been slashed from £40-50 to £10-15. (Go to: 23:15 (13) Energy storage solutions for social housing – YouTube)

In essence, in a sector where policies and prices remain transient and the social housing residents’ well-being is of paramount importance, a dependable energy storage solution affords housing associations assurance that heat storage is a reliable means of tackling increasing energy costs and reducing tenants’ energy expenses in a sustainable manner, while also meeting their legislative net zero requirements with minimal disruption to residents.

The impact is not just economic but also environmental.

Get in touch with us to embark upon the energy savings journey for your housing associations.

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