The stats say it all: Debunking decarbonisation myths with Matt Hodges, Energy and Sustainability Manager at NetZero Collective

I often hear people questioning the housing sector’s ability to decarbonise homes to meet the UK’s 2050 net-zero targets.

At NetZero Collective, we advise housing providers and property services businesses across the UK on how to achieve net zero. I wholeheartedly believe that all kinds of homes can reduce their emissions to help the planet.

Misconceptions about electrically powered heating systems being ineffective without additional insulation, and that it will increase fuel bills and worsen fuel poverty, come up time and again.

And yet, the retrofitting trials we have worked on in partnership with Crawley Borough Council are squarely challenging these two decarbonisation myths.

Over the last 18 months, we’ve worked on and monitored four homes in Crawley, which already have double glazing and good levels of insulation, including cavity wall insulation and 300mm of loft insulation.

Our work involved fitting them out with solar PV panels, storage batteries and air-source heat pumps, but the retrofit didn’t include any other improvements to the homes.

The results of the project have reinforced our view that there are still real benefits to retrofitting homes like these in Crawley that already have decent levels of insulation – we’ve found our work increased levels of energy efficiency and saved the tenants money on their fuel bills.

Innovative air-source heat pumps use electricity to extract heat from the air outside and create warmth in the home via hot water in radiators. While most of us are used to a quick blast of heating with very hot radiators, these operate at a lower, more consistent temperature compared to gas heating systems, increasing system efficiency whilst still creating a warm and comfortable environment for the resident.

We noticed that tenants were keeping warm, and even chose to lower the room thermostat set-point temperature despite the season change from autumn to winter as the consistent temperature delivered by the air-source heat pumps allowed the tenants to be comfortable at lower room temperatures.

Overall, the heat pump technology, combined with solar PV and battery storage, provides a more efficient way to heat a home and does not make it any more reliant on additional insulation than a gas boiler.

This leads me to the next myth about electrically powered heating systems: that it will cost tenants more, pushing more families into fuel poverty – a very topical issue that we take really seriously.

The trial has backed up our predictions about bills. Figures from the homes in Crawley are proving that electricity usage didn’t rocket.

By complementing the heat pumps with solar PV panels and battery storage, it’s creating ‘free’ energy that counteracts bill increases, on top of removing gas bills.

One of the Crawley homes, where Glenn Mead’s family lives, has seen their electricity usage remain steady despite the shift to an air-source heat pump, thanks to their new solar PV panels and battery. Glenn has told us how incredibly pleased he is to now be saving around £80 a month on energy bills.

It’s worth noting too that the retrofit work happened during winter – so come spring, cost savings will only go up.

Although I can’t promise the same for everyone (it depends on habits and comfort levels), another family is making savings even after their electricity usage went up by about 50%. Although they’re paying about £38 a month more for electricity, it has been more than offset by not having gas bills anymore, saving them around £56 a month.

Fabric-first is the mantra for new builds and retrofit programmes, and it makes sense to reduce energy demand before looking at heating system changes. But for homes where further fabric improvements may not be possible, our trials have proven that an effective combination of technological measures can be deployed to achieve tangible carbon savings whilst saving tenants money on their fuel bills.

Our trial in Crawley is debunking decarbonisation myths, proving that new technology like air-source heat pumps can make a positive difference. We’ve proved it won’t push families into fuel poverty and in many cases, the combination of electric heat pumps, solar PV and battery storage, is improving tenants’ finances – unlike ageing gas boilers.

But retrofitting goes beyond saving tenants money. It is making homes that are fit for the future while contributing to the UK’s net-zero targets to help save the planet.