We need an army for the retrofit revolution

The UK has set a legally binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions to ‘Net Zero‘ by the year 2050, which requires no less than a complete transformation of society.

In addition to revolutionising our transport and energy networks, we must take ambitious action to upgrade our existing building stock, making every property in the UK as energy efficient and environmentally sustainable as possible.

Achieving this target will rely upon thousands of highly skilled tradespeople and installers who have the technical knowledge and experience neccessary to deliver the change our country needs.

Unforunately, there is an underlying crisis in the UK renovation sector caused by an ageing workforce and a worrying shortfall in new entrants to replace those who retire.

This article will examine ways that we can address this dilemma, and argues that an ambitious programme of training and recruitment in the retrofit sector could provide a solution to the economic crisis caused by the Coronavirus pandemic whilst tackling climate change and fuel poverty at the same time.

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Improving the energy efficiency of thousands of properties across the UK will require a far-reaching programme of training in order to address the skills shortage. Photo: Cetteup - UnSplash

We can't tackle climate change without tackling energy inefficiency

Energy efficiency is a vital pillar in the transition to a net zero carbon economy, but it is often overshadowed by the more glamourous fields of renewable energy generation, electric vehicles, microgrids and smart meters.

However, unlike most other technologies, energy efficiency upgrades can be applied to every building across the country.

You may be surprised at the level of carbon emissions that come from our buildings. In Brighton and Hove 41% of all emissions come from housing alone.

One of the reasons that our buildings are the cause of such a high proportion of carbon emissions is because so many of them are old and thermally inefficient, meaning they need a lot of energy to heat and keep warm. A study from Friends of the Earth found that only 34% of homes in the Brighton and Hove area are considered to be well insulated.

Our local council has pledged to achieve a net zero emissions status for the city as soon as 2030. To achieve this goal and ensure that all homes in the city are adequately insulated to an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) of ‘C’, we will need to retrofit 7,861 homes every year for the next 10 years.

The trouble is that there are simply not enough qualified retrofit pracitioners to deliver the work in the timescales required to curtail the worst case scenarios of climate breakdown.

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The Coronavirus pandemic has caused an economic shutdown which has threatened thousands of jobs across the UK. An ambitious programme of training in the construction trades could provide a new career for those who have lost work. Photo: NeedPix

A Retrofit Revolution - an opportunity to re-skill the thousands who have suffered redundancy

A recent study undertaken by our partners at RetrofitWorks found that in order to complete the work required to bring the UK’s housing stock up to a minimum EPC level of C by 2030, the number of practitioners working in the industry would need to increase by 139%.

On a national scale, that equates to an additional 223,387 people working in energy efficiency and retrofit trades (e.g. carpenters, electricians, plumbers, window fitters, roofers, etc).

An economic stimulus package designed to train new apprentices and re-skill workers from other industries who have suffered redundancy would be an intelligent response to the Coronavirus economic recovery that would deliver multiple long-term benefits.

Under ordinary circumstances, such an opportunity for high-skilled job creation would be a tremendous benefit for any society. But given the current Covid-19 pandemic induced economic lockdown, which is expected to cause a momentous economic downturn and result in thousands of job losses, there is even greater appeal in pursuing this job-creating strategy.

How will employment in the renovation industry boost the UK economy?

Proper support for the energy efficiency sector, in line with the ambitious targets set at the Paris Climate Agreement and national and local sustainability goals, has the potential to bring great economic benefits over a long period of time.

The renovation sector is considered to be labour intensive, and studies have shown that the industry creates more jobs than renewable energy generation for an equivalent level of investment.

Retrofit and renovation businesses are typically small, locally based operations. The sector is predominantly comprised of small and medium sized businesses (SMEs) who will employ people from the local area.

Investment and support for this sector will therefore not only create more highly skilled and well paid jobs, but it will create jobs that are embedded within the local community.

Furthermore, it is not only ‘blue collar’ tradespeople who work with their hands that comprise the energy efficiency sector. Property renovations require skilled, industry accredited tradespeople who are able to co-ordinate complex projects and meet high quality standards. Retrofit delivery can involve architects, engineers, and project co-ordinators, all of whom would benefit from an economic stimulus package supporting the sector.

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Whole home renovation projects can be highly complex and will need input from a variety of professionals such as architects, engineers, and project-co-ordinators. Photo: Dan McCullugh - UnSplash

Why everybody wins with a nationwide renovation revolution

A nationwide programme of retrofitting homes and businesses would deliver a great variety of benefits in addition to the remarkable job creation potential outlined above.

More energy efficient buildings will improve the physical and mental wellbeing of occupants, which can reduce pressures on the National Health Service as warmer homes lessen the likelihood of strokes and heart-attacks.

Bringing all homes in the UK up to a minumim EPC rating of C would do wonders to alleviate levels of fuel poverty. In Brighton and Hove there are estimated to be around 16,000 households suffering from fuel poverty, which means that they can not afford to adequately heat their homes to a comfortable temperature.

Greater levels of energy efficiency will bring down the monthly cost of energy bills for everyone in the community, meaning more money can be spent on goods and services within the local economy.

And finally, of course, improved energy efficiency means that less energy is required to heat and power our homes, reducing our collective impact on the environment and arguably saving Governments and Councils a great deal of money on the long-term cost of climate change related disaster relief.

The longer we wait without addressing this issue simply means that the same amount of work will need to be done in a shorter timeframe. Now is the time to get people back to work building the warm, efficient, sustainable buildings we need in the future.

What do you think?
Leave your thoughts in the comments section below

1 Comment

Dave Cole · 31/05/2020 at 08:02

All of this about retrofit makes sense. I live in a sixties block of flats that is not energy efficient but the inertia of the homeowners (54 flats) is such that nothing gets done about the long term. Are there organisations that can encourage blocks such as mine to assess their building’s energy performance and help to plan a programme that will deliver better energy efficiency?

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