Does renewable energy have any place in social housing?
I have a long held belief in the fabric first approach when it comes to social housing and there are a number of reasons for this. I hold the view that solar PV returns are grossly inflated and based on optimum conditions that we rarely see in the UK. I once considered installing solar PV on a social housing scheme and carried out a life cycle cost that also included for specialist cleaning of the solar PV panels at regular intervals and also accounted for the cost of inverter failure that you can expect to see roughly every 6-7 years. When you account for all life cycle costs then solar PV is not such an attractive proposition. You only had to look at the German experience of solar PV to see that feed in tariffs were not sustainable for any meaningful length of time.
Then there are systems like air source and ground source heat pumps, which are fine in theory but pragmatically I found that they were simply not appropriate for the social housing sector. Private residents who invest in these systems generally do a great deal of research, understand what they are paying for and further understand what they can expect from these systems in use. Wherever I have been involved with installing these systems in social housing we found that residents simply didn’t understand their functionality or how to get the best from the system. Heat emitters generally run at far lower temperatures and this is a general requirement if one is to obtain maximum efficiency from an air or ground source heat pump system. This did not stop residents complaining that their radiators weren’t hot enough and whilst you can lead a horse to water…
With these points in mind I recently acted as joint expert witness to investigate alleged building defects in a very interesting building with green credentials. It was a RuralZed timber framed building designed by Bill Dunster and I believe it was the first ever social housing development to attain Code 6 under the code for sustainable homes. It is claimed to be a high quality housing system, combining micro-generation and small biomass technologies. The marketing literature states that the system is built with, ‘Traditional construction materials that provide sustainable architecture with a solid aspirational aesthetic.’ RuralZED received its code 6 certification, under the code for sustainable homes scheme, for the One-earth homes Scheme. These homes are claimed to be the first commercially built homes to receive certification.’ Code 6 is only one level below the highest possible award under the sustainable homes scheme and is only awarded to zero carbon homes.
The property had a range of green technologies that should benefit the resident and these were:
- Solar thermal hot water
- Solar PV
- Passive stack ventilation system
- Super insulation
- Link to an efficient biomass district heating scheme
- A roof mounted wind turbine
- Rainwater harvesting system
Premature failure of renewable technologies are in our experience very common and despite the alleged payback periods claimed by renewable technology salesmen, it is our experience that these renewables consistently prove to be incredibly expensive to maintain for social housing landlords. Moreover, when repairs and maintenance are required to non-standard items then landlords and their maintenance contractors seem ill equipped to deal with anything out of the ordinary. Landlords are realising that they have assumed rather more maintenance cost obligations on renewables that they were assumed to have, so as in this case, the decision may be taken that repairs are not cost effective and they are simply decommissioned. With the demise of grant funding for renewable installations and the unsustainability of feed in tariffs, landlords will hopefully think far more carefully about installing renewable technologies.