Report questions effectiveness of renewable energy to alleviate fuel poverty

Sheffield Hallam University, renewable energy

Social-housing providers are installing renewable energy without a full knowledge of its potential in a ‘fit-and-forget’ approach to fuel poverty, according to a report by Dr Fin O’Flaherty and Dr James Pinder of Sheffield Hallam University. The Centre for Infrastructure Management at the university says that renewable-energy technologies such as photo-voltaic arrays, solar-thermal panels and ground-source heat pumps are increasingly being used by social-housing providers to help alleviate fuel poverty and reduce carbon emissions. However, to date, it is not clear which technologies are most effective.

Dr O’Flaherty says, ‘Recent figures show that up to one in five households in the UK are in fuel poverty [10% or more of income spent on energy to maintain a warm home]. Many local authorities and housing associations have begun installing renewable-energy technologies on their properties in a bid to address this problem.

‘While we applaud them for this and appreciate their motivations, our report has found that there is often a limited understanding of how the technologies perform in use or what level of savings are being delivered to residents.’

He argues that such an approach is not sustainable and a symptom of the way schemes have been funded in the past — often through grant funding — and which means that there has been no provision for ongoing performance monitoring and system maintenance.

Dr O’Flaherty adds, ‘The introduction of Government subsidies such as the Feed-in Tariff means that payback periods for renewable-energy technologies have fallen, and social-housing providers have begun to adopt a more long-term attitude to their schemes.

‘However, under-performing and malfunctioning renewable-energy technologies will result in a reduction in income for social-housing providers and undermine the economics of schemes.

‘Renewable-energy technologies should not be seen as a silver bullet for alleviating the problem of fuel poverty in the UK, but when used with other energy-efficiency measures they can provide a useful way of reducing households’ dependence on energy supplied by utility companies.’

Solar-thermal hot-water systems were found not to be cost effective for alleviating fuel poverty. They are relatively cheap to buy and install (about £3500), but the net savings are only about £50 a year, particularly for under-performing systems. With the help of the Renewable-Heat Incentive, systems performing to specification will have a payback of about 15 years. However, it is thought that social-housing providers are likely to use RHI payments to fund the capital cost of installing solar-thermal systems rather than let them benefit residents.

Solar PV systems are seen as more effective in alleviating fuel poverty by generating savings of £340 to £420 a year. With the help of the Feed-in Tariff their payback is 15 to 17 years, depending how much of the electricity generated is used by residents. Without the FiT, the payback is over 60 years.

Ground-source heat pumps installed in properties with coal-fired central heating were found to be more effective at alleviating fuel poverty. The net saving for one home in the first year was about £800.

The report concludes: ‘Even when benefiting from Feed-in Tariffs and the Renewable-Heat Incentive, the payback period for micro-generation technologies still exceeds those of other energy-efficiency measures such as cavity-wall insulation and draught proofing. Reducing demand for energy should, therefore, be seen as a prerequisite to using micro-generation technologies to alleviate fuel poverty.’

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