We can’t afford to let the national retrofit plan fail

This article was published in the Irish Times on the 26th January 2023 and is available here

The National Retrofit Plan has already been branded as a failure by opposition politicians despite being just a year old. Is that a fair assessment?

Despite the best efforts of politicians, public servants and various social actors, sometimes well-intentioned policies either backfire or gather dust. While success might be defined as delivery-and-results-as-planned, policy failures tend to morph into blame games, where statistics become scandals and headlines.

The targets in the recently adopted Climate Action Plan 2023 for the residential and building sector are extremely ambitious: the plan aims to have the equivalent of 500,000 dwellings retrofitted to B2 by 2030 and 400,000 existing dwellings using heat pumps by 2030. The residential building sector as a whole is supposed to achieve emissions reductions of 40% by 2030.

In October 2022, the Oireachtas Committee on Environment and Climate Action met to discuss retrofitting. While the SEAI described progress in building the capacity of the sector, in reality, the numbers applying under the new one-stop-shop service are still low, although the scheme is less than a year old so it really too soon to judge it a ‘failure’. Given that inflation has already been running at about 22% in this sector, both contractors and householders are understandably wary about engaging in complex projects with potentially spiralling costs.

Some members of the Climate Action committee queried whether in fact it would be better to refocus efforts and funding towards shallow retrofits instead to boost uptake and speed up the delivery of warmer homes. Shallower retrofits could improve warmth, comfort, and thermal efficiency but if the B2 requirement is dropped, this may result in a failure to meet emissions targets (because better insulated homes use less fossil fuels).

Perhaps it is frustration rather than failure that is driving criticism of the plan, given that demand for retrofitting services is greatly exceeding the capacity of the sector at the moment. A bigger challenge that warrants serious political debate is how to improve the standards in the rental sector without driving more landlords to sell or hike up rents.  Landlords currently have zero incentive to engage with retrofitting despite the fact that over 40% of rental properties are at a BER D rating or lower. A key study on tax incentives for the rental sector is not due until 2024, and there are currently no minimum BER ratings on private rental properties leading to significant rates of fuel and energy poverty in that sector. By way of contrast, France recently introduced legislation requiring sellers to estimate the cost of a retrofit to bring the house up to minimum standards, and from January this year, properties with a BER G or lower cannot be rented out at all.

According to the National Heat Study, 62% of fuel-based emissions in the Irish residential sector come from detached houses which make up only 42% of the residential stock. Within detached houses, the majority of emissions (65%) result from consumption of oil. Ireland is one of the few countries in the EU that does not have a date for ending new oil and gas boiler installations. The Netherlands banned new gas connections in 2018, Denmark has had a ban since 2013.

No grant scheme or plan will break our addiction to fossil fuels if companies and utilities are still pushing oil and gas products to keep us hooked. Ultimately, to achieve our emissions targets, all gas and oil boilers will have to come out of our homes, and this needs to be communicated much more directly to the public and the construction sector.

One paragraph of the 2023 Climate Action Plan makes clear that the government policy is to phase out fossil fuel heating systems:

“All buildings will need to switch to heat pumps or district heating by 2050, meaning that the gas grid will no longer supply existing homes and commercial premises. It will also require the urgent ending of new gas connections or the installation of new fossil heating systems in new or refurbished buildings. Where heating systems are being upgraded, this should be to non-fossil fuel systems.”

Someone in government needs to send Gas Networks Ireland (GNI) the memo: since the adoption of the Climate Act in 2021, Ireland’s gas network has continued to grow and add new connections, and radio adverts continue to flog fossil fuel heating systems. In 2021, almost 4,000 homes and 12 apartment blocks contracted to be connected to the natural gas network. GNI’s position vision is to replace natural gas with ‘renewable’ gas (that does not yet exist), whereas the government wants to end new gas connections and electrify all heating systems. If ever there was an example of policy failure waiting to happen, this is it.

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