This may be a bitter pill to swallow, but if we have any hope of reducing our personal carbon footprints down to a sustainable size, we have to substantially improve the energy efficiency of our homes, and those who can afford to do so will need to pay for this themselves. However, these costs will come with the benefits of lower (or even negative) energy bills and warmer and more comfortable homes, and only needing simple changes of behaviour. Not only that, but we know this policy should be effective because it’s been very effective elsewhere – the City of Berkeley, California, has had such a policy since 2008, and many other US states (and Germany) have since followed suite.
The essential premise of these policies, commonly known as energy conservation ordinances, is that homeowners and landlords are required to bring their properties up to minimum energy efficiency standards whenever they are sold, re-let, or undergo a major renovation. There may be some variations in how this policy is implemented but they essentially boil down to an assessment that triggers a compliance period, after which non-compliant properties cannot be sold or let and the owners may face financial penalties. This appears to be the Scottish Government’s preferred approach, and in principle it is a very good one.
However, there is a massive problem with the proposals as they stand, as the new standards will be based on Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) ratings, and as building scientists with many decades of collective expertise we cannot stay quiet on an issue that the Scottish Government has known all about and wilfully ignored for many years.
We and many other experts have repeatedly and consistently informed the Scottish Government of why EPCs are not a valid measure of household energy consumption and efficiency, but despite this Scottish policy makers persist in their belief that EPCs are a valid mechanism for mandating energy efficiency improvements. Put simply, EPCs make comparisons between houses by normalising multiple variables, but are not designed to consider the complex and ever-changing variables of householders, and so using EPCs as is being proposed means completely ignoring this fundamental limitation.
Yet when we have raised the problems with EPCs at Scottish Government consultation events any discussion of the validity of EPCs has frequently been shut down. This is perhaps not surprising given that many of these events are run by the Energy Saving Trust (EST) on behalf of the Scottish Government, which represents a glaring, significant and long-term conflict of interest.
As a private, albeit not-for-profit, organisation the EST is reliant on funding to maintain and generate income from its Home Energy Efficiency Database (HEED) and its Home Analytics tools, which pull ‘data’ from EPCs and other sources which rely heavily on assumptions, proxies and abstracted data. Much of this funding comes from the Scottish Government. It also delivers the Home Energy Scotland (HES) service and, working with Changeworks and other contractors, delivers a range of services for the Scottish Government and local authorities.
As such, the EST’s status and reliance on government funding mean that it should be treated strictly as a contractor as part of all policy and decision-making processes, and that there should be appropriate restrictions on staff moving between the Scottish Government, the EST, Changeworks, and all similar delivery bodies.
Added to which, the Scottish Government has generally been reluctant to allow formal independent external evaluation of its energy efficiency and fuel poverty programmes however, a review of the Energy Assistance Package we conducted in 2013-14 found that many of the stakeholders consulted felt that the contractual process, which was designed by the Scottish Government with support from the EST, was designed around what the managing agent (the EST) and/or the Scottish Government were willing to deliver, rather than around the needs of householders, support services, and installers (the published version is an ‘agreed’ version).
The evidence for this review was based eighteen interviews, conducted with twenty-five participants from fourteen key stakeholder organisations and companies, all but one of which accepted the findings of the draft final report with minimal comments. The EST submitted over 150 comments on the text, with further comments made by email. Sadly, our experience of working with the Scottish Government, its stakeholders, and its delivery bodies, leads us to conclude that technical expertise is significantly lacking amongst many of those involved in the design and delivery of its energy efficiency and fuel poverty programmes, and that those involved have consistently failed to understand the evidence and engage with suitably qualified experts and professionals to develop a valid approach to delivering mandatory household energy performance improvements.
We stress that achieving a City & Guilds in Energy Awareness or having a PhD in the social sciences (or, for that matter, an MA in Modern History) does not, at least in itself, constitute evidence of having a sufficient understanding of the limitations of EPCs; the Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP); the reduced data Standard Assessment Procedure (RdSAP); the Buildings Research Establishment Domestic Energy Model (BREDEM); or any of the alternative models and assessment tools, and the ‘datasets’ constructed from these.
Yet the Scottish Government sees fit to allow groups that it funds, such as the Short Life Working Group on EPCs, to be dominated by (and in that case, chaired by) members with insufficient technical expertise, and/or those who have vested interests in supporting the Scottish Government’s misguided belief in EPCs.
If EPCs, as they stand, are to be used to drive mandatory energy efficiency improvements to properties we will see a range of unintended consequences that will have negative impacts on occupants. One simple example of an unintended consequence is the case of buildings with high thermal mass, a common feature of the design of many traditional Scottish buildings and one common cause of why their actual energy consumption can be lower than the modelled consumption (if they are well-maintained).
Under the current circumstances an EPC would likely recommend (and in future, mandate) installing new insulation as part of the recommended measures. This would then result in them overheating, and the subsequent impacts on their occupants: using more energy for cooling; using more water; impacting on health conditions; loss of income for homeworkers; etc; and law suits will surely follow.
And it gets worse. The Scottish Government is proposing that ‘standard assessments’ merely use RdSAP as the assessment tool, with full SAP assessments only being offered to householders as an "optional and additional service". Whilst a full SAP assessment is far from ideal, the ridiculousness of proposing standard assessments use RdSAP is beyond belief. RdSAP, better known as the Home Energy Check survey delivered (in various formats) by the EST and various other support organisations is, at best, suitable for raising awareness, recommending simple behavioural changes, identifying householders in need of support, and identifying where a small number of low-cost energy efficiency measures are appropriate for some properties.
All of these needs can be met as part of full SAP assessments, and through the existing responsibilities of support services. As building scientists, we strongly recommend, indeed insist, that any householder considering investing in anything but the most basic energy efficiency upgrades should have an assessment conducted by a chartered surveyor or similarly appropriately qualified technical professional, and that no householder should make such a decision purely on the basis of an EPC and an RdSAP assessment.
What all this means is that if the Scottish Government does not now change its proposals it will be too late to develop and implement an alternative EPC by 2024, which is why we set out cost-effective proposals for an alternative domestic EPC back in 2018, and why we are now pledging to offer free expert witness support to householders who will be adversely affected by this policy. We think that the Scottish courts will pay more attention to this evidence in the first few years of this policy coming into force than the Scottish Government has done in the last decade.
We accept that doing so may serve to undermine public trust in the energy efficiency and climate change agendas however, given the wealth and consistency of the evidence, the ultimate responsibility for this will lie wholly at the feet of the Scottish Government and the Energy Saving Trust.
You can read our full response to the Scottish Government’s consultation here.