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The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund: A Role for Solar PV

This blog written by Stuart Elmes first appeared on the solarblogger here.

On 19th October, the UK government revealed its much anticipated Heat in Buildings Strategy.  Headline writers entirely focused on only one element of the announcement –  the Boiler Upgrade Scheme, a plan to give grants of £5,000 to people replacing fossil fuel heating by installing a heat pump in their own home.  

However the Strategy contained other initiatives which, while less-publicised, better address the barriers to the transition to electric heating – by helping mitigate both their high running costs and expensive installation. These funds aimed at social landlords and Local Authorities takes a more holistic approach since they can also be used for measures that tackle running costs by reducing heating demand and generating power on-site.

The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund

Less reported, but with a budget many times higher than the headline-grabbing Boiler Upgrade Scheme is the funding announced for the next three years for delivery through Local Authorities and Social Landlords.  The Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund (£800m over three years) is for energy improvements to social housing and the Home Upgrade Grant (£950m) will be administered by Local Authorities and support energy efficiency improvements for low income households.
For the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, the approach is summarised as follows:

  • Fabric first – heat loss prevention is prioritised before other energy efficiency measures
  • Worst first – homes with lower starting energy performance attract more funding
  • Upon completion homes must achieve a minimum Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) rating of C and maximum space heating demand of 90kWh/m2.year

It is set up as a competition, with applicants scored on how well they meet the goals above, as well as for deliverability and cost-effectiveness.  The landlord contributes at least 1/3 of the cost of the upgrade with 2/3 coming from the fund.  If a landlord takes the full grant and adds the minimum contribution only, then the amount that can be spent on each type of property is given below.  Landlords can elect to spend more on the property, but the extra is then provided by the landlord.

These are pretty chunky amounts.

Eligible measures are anything that improves the EPC, with the exception of new fossil fuel heating systems.  Low carbon heating is encouraged, but only after fabric measures have been implemented.  The tenant must be left better off – with lower energy bills.

This is where solar PV comes in –  due to the high cost of electricity compared to gas, replacing gas heating with electric heating will increase energy bills, unless the starting levels of thermal insulation are exceptionally low and can be improved by a very large amount.  (See my earlier blog – Real-World Heat Pump Running Costs)

The complementarity of solar PV and heat pumps is well-understood by social landlords, as can be seen by reviewing the successful bids in the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund Demonstrator, which were announced March 2021 and I have put into summary form in the table below.

Fourteen out of seventeen successful bids, covering 2,103 out of 2,342 (90%) of the properties to be improved have solar PV among the measures to be installed.  In fact only one project (Manchester) is installing ASHP without PV.
With a total cost of £62.1m, the demonstrator projects grant component is an average of £26,000 per property – higher than the current ceiling, but due to solar PV being such a cost effective way to improve EPCs, it is likely to remain a feature of projects in the future waves.

This system approach to improving properties comprising significant improvements to insulation to lower heat demand, and combining low carbon heating with solar PV to keep a lid on the energy bills for residents seems far more sensible than a crude upfront grant to help cover some of the extra costs of the heat pump installation alone.

That winning combination of heat pumps and solar PV is well-understood by experienced practitioners of energy retrofit working in the social housing sector.  By contrast, owner-occupiers encouraged by generous grants to install heat pumps may find themselves on the phone to their local solar PV installer soon after their first electricity bills land on the doormat.