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Low carbon heating installers: key workers in the climate crisis

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Written by Phil Hurley, Managing Director of NIBE Energy Systems 

There were high hopes for this year to centre around climate action and, while covid-19 has taken priority on the most part, the net zero target has not been forgotten. Instead, we have seen calls for the Government to integrate the low carbon transition into its plans to rebuild the economy, support jobs and get Britain moving again. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) urged the Prime Minister to act decisively on a climate resilient recovery in its letter to the Prime Minister back in May. One month later, the message was emphasised further within its Progress Report to Parliament, which detailed specific steps that should be taken by the Government to lock in emissions savings and build back better. Low carbon retrofits were, of course, pinpointed as a clear investment priority along with measures to urgently ramp up the availability of low carbon heating installers, who the CCC described as ‘key workers’ in the climate crisis. We simply cannot decarbonise our homes and buildings without them.

This month the Government responded to that Progress Report which highlighted that electrification is a solution for both off-grid and on-grid buildings. However, while installers are essential to delivering these retrofits in substantial numbers over the next few decades, there is still a huge amount of work to be done. Even with all the right intervention in place to boost uptake, there is an obvious and significant obstacle: there are not enough installers to deploy the amount of heat pumps net zero demands. Equipment manufacturers like us, suppliers and installers need to ramp up supply chain capacity. In a survey carried out by the Heat Pump Association last year, 71% of respondents rated themselves as a ‘very experienced’ gas boiler installer whilst just 17% said the same for heat pumps. It is hardly surprising therefore to note that 74% did not rate themselves as ‘very confident’ in recommending the best low carbon options to installers despite being a key source of information for consumers choosing a new heating system. The decarbonisation of heat depends on these figures changing drastically – and rapidly.

In the same survey, installers highlighted the lack of consumer demand for low carbon heating systems, with the majority (78%) pinning this down to upfront costs. This is a barrier that has long been in place and one which the Government seeks to overcome through the Green Homes Grant (GHG) scheme launched at the end of September. We have since surveyed NIBE installers in an attempt to gain an understanding of their experiences to date and have found that 80% of respondents have received enquiries from clients relating specifically to the scheme in question. After the year we have had and the strain on the economy, this boost in enquiries indicates a more promising future for those already trained in low carbon heating but the short timescales of the GHG offers little long-term guarantee for those still considering undertaking training. Demand is very unlikely to remain as high as it is today without an extension to the scheme beyond March 2021.

While the Committee on Climate Change has recently praised the introduction of the Green Homes Grant and welcomed news that a Net Zero Strategy will be put in place next year, it also made clear that that heat decarbonisation depends on more than just consumer demand. As we overcome this deficit through the introduction of financial incentives like GHG vouchers and the upcoming Clean Heat Grants, we must also take action to ensure that installers are ready and able to live up to the challenge. As it stands today, supply chains (both low carbon heat and energy efficiency measures) are unprepared for the scale-up in installations and installer numbers are insufficient for delivering the change required. This issue was brought to light in a recent response to a parliamentary question which stated that as of 20th October, there were only 2 businesses which are TrustMark registered and certified to install insulation measures in park homes under the Green Homes Grant scheme. This drastically undermines the aims of the scheme and the aspirations stated by the Government to deliver improvements to over 600,000 homes.

The Green Homes Grant skills training competition was launched on 23rd September specifically to ensure that energy efficiency and low carbon heating supply chains can deliver the additional demand created. However, applications for funding were required just a short three weeks later and the training must begin by December and be provided by March. While the competition is just the sort of support the industry needs to develop and thrive, such short timescales make delivering high quality training more difficult and place the support out of reach for new participants. It is promising to note that there are 100,000 registered gas engineers in the UK who are capable of retraining to deliver low carbon heating in line with plans to reach net zero; however, we must remember that this capability depends on installers taking the decision to retrain and upskill. It is paramount that the Government provides them with the certainty and confidence they need and that the retraining route is as motivating and accessible as possible. Even with all the will in the world, our homes cannot retrofit themselves.


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