Last month, the Government launched the much awaited consultation on its Green Deal “that will revolutionise the efficiency of British properties”.

It is proposed that the focus will be on loan finance for carbon saving technologies. But how effective the Deal will be will depend on how it’s going to be set up.

Will it recognise that ‘going green’ is as much to do with user behaviours as it is with the technologies they employ?

Our new recruit, Liz Curtis-Knight, considers recent research from the Energy Saving Trust that demonstrates the importance of thinking about user behaviours when using technologies such as heat pumps – one of the technologies being considered by the Green Deal. 

How is The Green Deal proposed to work?

The idea behind the Green Deal is to help homeowners and businesses make their properties more energy efficient without home and building owners (or tenants) having to pay any upfront costs.  Instead, the cost of the any energy efficiency measures installed is funded from the predicted savings on the individual’s energy bill.  This is effectively a low interest loan, although it is tied to the building rather than the person living in or using it; so if you move, the new occupier takes over the payments. 

The financing mechanism for the deal has been designed to overcome one of the main barriers to energy savings projects; the upfront cost.   This has been highlighted by a recent government report into consumer behaviours: “The human tendency to heavily discount future energy savings, coupled with the natural predisposition to focus on the short term… could limit people’s readiness to take action”. Reference:

The repayments for the efficiency measures should not exceed the predicted savings so that people will not be in arrears – a prepayment plan would have been drawn up before any work was carried out. 

My concern is over whether these ‘predicted’ savings will be realised in practice – and this is more to do with user behaviour rather than consumer behaviour.  If savings are not translated into practice, as experience shows can often be the case, then householders and businesses may end being disillusioned about the scheme which will not help anyone.

The Importance of behaviours: Taking heat pumps as an example

By way of an example, one of the low carbon alternatives for heating (and/or cooling) promoted in the Green Deal consultation document is air source and ground source heat pumps.  But are heat pumps always as efficient in practice as they are predicted to be?  The Energy Saving Trust has released the first of a two stage report reviewing the monitored performance of 83 domestic systems across the UK.

To compare an electric heat pump with a different system, for example a gas boiler, we need to consider the KgCO2 emitted by each per unit of energy produced.  On average, with the current generation mix, electricity emits nearly three times more CO2 per unit than natural gas.  Ideally then, we would like to see a heat pump delivering a coefficient of performance (COP) of at least three to easily beat a highly efficient new gas boiler system.   In reality, The Energy Trust found that only 13% of the heat pumps systems in their trial achieved this level of performance.

There were a number of factors contributing to this; but user behaviour was found to be a key indicator for efficiencies measured in practice.  Some people found the operating instructions just too complicated.  People also need to adapt to using a different method for heating their homes.  An efficient heat pump provides heat at a lower temperature than a conventional boiler, so radiators feel warm rather than hot.  It customers don’t understand this, it could result in the pump working harder or being on longer, reducing optimal performance and costing the consumer more money.

The Energy Saving Trust (EST) is in the process of running phase two of their trial. They are looking to further research and establish why poor operating efficiencies happen in practice so they are able to set best practice for future installations. A key part of making this happen, we know, will be guidance on improved instructions for customers, particularly on how to make systems much easier to operate.   Look out for this report next year.

For more information on the EST’s Getting warmer report: a field trial of heat pumps:

Are heat pumps right for you?

If you are one of the 5 million off gas properties in the UK, then heat pumps may be one of the best options for you right now and you could be able to take advantage of the green deal (although it’s not very clear how this scheme will be integrated with the renewable heat incentive, another government scheme that also promotes heat pumps). 

Otherwise, you could play the long game.  Although ground source heat pumps will require maintenance, many of the underground loops have guarantees for 50 years or more.  By then, the plan is that the electricity grid will be largely decarbonised – so your heat pump system should eventually become carbon neutral; something that could never be said for gas boilers, no matter how efficient they are!

A lesson for The Green Deal

Whatever the technology you use, the government, installers and users need to recognise that delivering predicated savings is as much to do with user behaviour (and how well the technology is installed) as the consumer opting in to purchasing the technology in the first place.

You can take part in the Green Deal consultation by visiting The Department of Energy and Climate Change consultation website.

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