We mustn’t let COVID-19 ruin our net-zero carbon progress

It will take years to rebuild the UK’s economy in the wake of coronavirus, but we can’t let that challenge get in the way of a more sustainable future. Here, Mark McManus, managing director at Stiebel Eltron, discusses how an economic recovery and a green recovery can work hand-in-hand.

In his Summer statement, the Chancellor announced a ‘green recovery’ package in a bid to reignite the UK’s drive towards net-zero. Improving the energy efficiency of the country’s housing stock was a key element of it.

The package included a £2bn Green Homes Grant for homeowners to apply for vouchers to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, as well as a £50m allocation towards the decarbonisation of social housing.

Many in the built environment argued the package didn’t go far enough, but any measures set out to improve the energy performance of new and existing housing stock is a welcome step forward towards achieving net-zero.

Reducing carbon emissions has and will be a priority for every industry, not just ours. And, despite the challenges coronavirus has brought, the pandemic did give the UK a glimpse of what a zero carbon future could look like.

According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, carbon dioxide levels were 40% lower in April this year compared with the same time last year. Indeed, much of this was due to a reduction in travel, but as the country looks to recover from the impact of COVID, we must all strive towards a more sustainable future. For the built environment, the energy efficiency of new and existing housing is core to that.

Before COVID-19 took hold of the country, it seemed like the property industry was making strong headways in improving its sustainability. Up and down the supply chain, businesses were working hard to ensure their products or services could be part of a zero-carbon future, and the sustainability tide really seemed to be turning.

Fast-forward to four months of lockdown, however, and the property sector’s focus has understandably shifted. Housebuilders are under pressure to deliver the developments that were paused or set back, while also navigating the tricky economic environment. Meeting housebuilding targets has become the main priority.

While housing delivery is undoubtedly vital for wider economic recovery, we cannot and should not let the good work that has been done to improve the energy efficiency of housing over the last five years fall between the cracks. That is why, more than ever, it’s important that developers and housebuilders are smart in their approach to sustainability – making small changes that have large sustainability benefits.

One simple method for housebuilders is to ensure a development uses electricity as its heating source, instead of gas. Electricity is increasingly being generated through renewable energy solutions and as a result has become a sustainable heating source for housing.

When green energy is used with systems like heat pumps, for example, which convert environmental energy drawn from water, the ground, outdoor air or extract air, the system produces no carbon emissions. Heat pumps are also able to harvest heat when it’s up to -20 degrees outside, making them a highly sustainable solution.

The benefits of heat pumps are increasingly being recognised and their use as part of the government’s £50m scheme for the decarbonisation of social housing will be key. According to a report from the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), if the UK is to meet net-zero by 2050 and decarbonise the country’s housing stock, 19 million heat pumps will need to be installed over the next 30 years alone.

Another sustainable solution for developers is to use technologies like instantaneous hot water (IHW) systems as a water heating source. Historically, IHW’s have been difficult to install due to the UK’s 240-volt energy supply, which has been considered too low to support the technology’s requirements. More recently, however, the industry’s been able to work around this voltage barrier.

For example, we worked alongside SP Energy Networks at a residential scheme for developer Watkin Jones this year. By phasing the energy supply in an alternative way, we were able to supply IHW’s with the 400 volts they needed to run. This has now paved the way for many more developers to use IHWs in their schemes.

As well as their environmental credentials, IHW’s have many other benefits for developers too. They’re simple to install and only heat water when needed. In addition to that, they’re much smaller than their traditional water heating counterparts.

Space has always been a premium for developers. An extra couple of square feet can be the difference between a house having two bedrooms or three bedrooms, having a significant impact on a development’s profits. This additional space is expected to become even more important in the wake of COVID as homeowners’ priorities shift.

Potential buyers will likely demand access to private land or a garden, and many in the housebuilding industry are predicting that office space requirements will become the norm. All of this means housebuilders with existing land will need to make their space work harder. An IHW uses 10 per cent less space in an internal city centre flat – space that could accommodate a sizeable balcony or even a small office.

Elsewhere, using electrical heating systems can also save on space while being a greener alternative to gas systems as they don’t require a boiler room, fuel store or tank.

The UK’s recovery from coronavirus will be a huge challenge, particularly for the property sector, but we shouldn’t let housing delivery be at the detriment to the planet. We must find an equilibrium between delivering housing fast and doing so sustainably. Otherwise our uphill battle towards a net-zero future will only become steeper.