From the end of September, a new ‘Green Homes Grant’ scheme will offer vouchers for homeowners across England. The vouchers will help to pay for environmentally friendly home improvements such as loft, floor and wall insulation, or to replace single-glazed windows with double glazing.
The majority of vouchers are worth up to £5,000 and will cover two-thirds of the cost of home improvements. Those on a low income and in receipt of certain benefits can receive a voucher covering all of the cost of improvements, up to a maximum value of £10,000.
The plans, announced as part of Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s July Mini-Budget, will see the Government put aside £2 billion for green home upgrades.
Sounds great! But how to apply, and what is the process?
To apply for the voucher, you must own your home. Park home owners, long-leaseholders and those with shared ownership are all eligible. So too are private or social landlords, although not for the low-income portion of the scheme.
First, you must visit the government accredited website Simple Energy Advice (www.simpleenergyadvice.org.uk) to check which improvements are possible in your home. The website then allows you to find registered tradespeople or businesses in your local area, in order to obtain quotes for the work. The scheme requires all works covered by the voucher to be completed by 31st March, so be sure to be speedy in getting those quotes.
Edward Matthew is the COP26 Director for the Climate Coalition and an Associate Director of the think tank E3G, where he coordinates campaigns. He believes that there is a huge potential demand out there for people to “green” their homes, but is concerned about the application process:
“If it is complicated or not clear, or if there aren’t enough certified builders taking part, then suddenly it could crumble. It needs to be super easy for people to apply for the vouchers. I think if they do that then this will fly out the door.”
Once I’ve navigated the application… What are my options?
As mentioned above, it does depend on individual homes. In general, the grant system separates into two parts. In short, you can’t get a grant for the second part unless you have already made improvements set out in the first section.
Guy Hewitt, Founder & Managing Director of solar energy firm Treadlighter, explains that this element of the system is sensible:
“The first part of the scheme covers the absolute golden rule of energy efficiency from our perspective, which is insulation, insulation, insulation. That’s where everybody should start.”
Anybody considering investing in solar energies, heat pumps or any other source of green energy must first ensure that their insulation is up to scratch, so that energy isn’t wasted.
It’s the second stage of the scheme, though, that is more controversial. Critics are concerned mainly about the type of energy that has been incentivised.
Types of Solar Energy
“When the government announced the new grant scheme, us in the Solar PV industry were surprised that they have included Solar Thermal, but not Solar PV”, Hewitt tells me.
But what’s the difference?
Hewitt explains: “A Solar PV system requires panels to be put on a roof, whether it’s an inclined roof or a flat roof, and then in simple terms wired into your fuse board. The house will then always use the solar electricity first, and in this way saves money off your annual bill and helps the environment by reducing your carbon emissions. The technology is very robust, and entirely renewable.”
Sounds great! But Solar PV isn’t available through the scheme. Instead, homeowners can get quotes for the installation of Solar Thermal systems. Here, the process is rather more complex. Solar Thermal helps to heat hot water, but is significantly more intrusive to install as a retrofit, the only type of fit covered by the scheme.
A key element to the functioning of Solar Thermal systems is the heat transfer fluid. This is circulated through the roof panels which are heated by the sun’s energy and returned to a coil in the cylinder where it helps to heat the water. But for this to work, there needs to be a pump, which uses electricity to transport the heat transfer fluid around the system.
“In this regard,” Hewitt tells me, “Solar Thermal is not technically a true renewable. It does achieve a carbon saving, but it is still using a small amount of electricity.” In the main, Solar Thermal systems also only operate during the summer months.
Another problem with Solar Thermal is that in comparison to PV, it’s a more expensive technology to install as a retrofit. Hewitt explains, “Aside from installing the panels on the roof, insulated pipework needs to be run from the panels to a new dual coil cylinder with a pump and control system. In short, installing Solar Thermal is a much bigger job than that of installing Solar PV, but the benefits derived from Solar PV are significantly greater than those of Solar Thermal”.
The choice to incentivise a less efficient, bulkier system seems counterproductive. In fact, the government used to incentivise the installation of Solar PV. The ‘Feed in Tariff’ ran from 2010 to 2019, and helped homeowners to pay for the addition of panels to their roofs. According to Hewitt, “they have already incentivised it in the past, and we still don’t understand why they would favour Solar Thermal over Solar PV unless it is just to support the industry. We would have preferred to see Battery Storage being incentivized.”
So how far will the vouchers actually go in “greening” UK homes?
While pleased that the government is including environmentally friendly incentives in the Mini-Budget, commentators from environmental groups have reservations.
“It’s welcome to see the government finally understanding that the climate crisis won’t be tackled by private companies or the market” says Rosie Rawle, Co-Chair of the Young Greens.
“Government intervention like the Green Homes Grant scheme is absolutely vital. But this scheme misses the mark entirely. By putting home-owners and private landlords in the driving seat, the government has sadly failed to grasp the opportunity such projects have. Why would private landlords insulate their housing when they’re not the ones paying the heating bills or sitting in freezing homes?”
For the scheme to be meaningful, the government should ensure it properly reaches all homes; tackling the carbon footprint of the housing sector across the board, while giving everybody cheaper bills and more habitable homes.
Edward Matthew of the Climate Coalition believes that the scheme could see huge uptake, but that it’s vital it is extended into a long-term programme.
“What we’ve been seeking to raise awareness about for many years now is that this kind of subsidy is fantastic for economic growth and generating jobs. It provides economic returns which are as great as any that you get for any infrastructure project.
“In the spending review this year we want the government to turn it into a long-term scheme, to do this for the next 10 years. The important thing is that they build it up as a long-term programme and give business the certainty they need to actually invest in this.”