A recent report from the CSO, Domestic Building Energy Ratings from a Social Perspective 2016 examined data from the last census to identify households that have the least energy efficient homes and who may also not be in a position to undertake the costs associated with any retrofitting work that is required to make the move towards a low-carbon economy.
The Report found that links between energy efficient homes and the location and socio-economic status of those households varied. New homes are built to higher energy efficiency standards, so areas where lots of new homes are being built have a higher proportion of energy efficient homes. The type of dwelling also mattered, mid floor apartments were the most energy efficient and older detached houses were the least. The BER energy-rating scale is used to determine the energy efficiency of a dwelling and is divided into categories from G (highest energy usage) to an A1 rating (lowest energy usage).
So across the country, Cork county had a higher proportion of “B” ratings relative to other counties and Offaly and Leitrim were found to have a relatively high proportion of “G” ratings. Variations were found across Dublin too with older postal districts such as Dublin 3 and Dublin 7 having a higher proportion of lower rated homes whereas Dublin 18 was the most energy efficient.
The report states that in 2016, ten per cent of households headed by someone over the age of 75, eight per cent of those living alone, eleven per cent of farmers, eight per cent of agricultural workers and eight per cent of persons with a mobility difficulty lived in the lowest energy efficient homes, homes with a BER rating of “G”.
Homes owned outright were also found to be less energy efficient, most likely due to being built at a time before stricter energy efficient building regulations. Only nine per cent of homes owned outright had a “B” rating compared with 17 per cent of homes with a mortgage and 12 per cent of homes that were being rented.
Households headed up by someone in employment in 2016 lived in more energy efficient homes with 15 per cent living in “B” rated homes and 46 per cent living in “C” rated homes. This compares with only seven per cent of retired heads of households living in a “B” rated home and 34 per cent in a “C” rated home.
Knowing where and who to target first is important as energy efficient homes help reduce our carbon footprint as they require less fuel to heat. Despite two Government strategies specifically aimed at tackling energy poverty, barriers persist to accessing grants for low income households. These are the households who are most likely to use solid fuels such as coal and peat; the very households that policy should be targeting. The upfront costs associated with accessing sustainable energy grants can act as a barrier for those on low incomes. Yet with an estimated 230,604 homes having the lowest BER ratings of F or G, it is imperative that Government support these households by redesigning these schemes to make them more accessible.
One of the most cost-effective measures to promote sustainable development is to increase building energy efficiency. Increasing building energy efficiency, through retrofitting, for example, is along with reducing food waste, one of the two most effective means to increase sustainability and meet international environmental targets. The SEAI estimate that €35 billion would be needed over the coming 35 years to make Ireland’s existing housing stock ‘low-carbon’ by 2050. More than 50,000 home will have to be retrofitted every year to meet the targets in the Climate Action Plan and Programme for Government. The construction sector will have to be supported to increase its capacity if these targets are to be met. Government should develop a national retrofitting strategy of sufficient scale, using the learning from the SEAI deep retrofit pilot programme, with an ambitious target to deep retrofit the entire existing housing stock in a 20 year timeframe and concurrent plans to increase capacity within the construction sector.
Investment in renewable energy and retrofitting on the scale required to meet our national climate ambition requires large scale investment in infrastructure. An upgrade of the national grid must be a key element of infrastructure investment so that communities, cooperatives, farms and individuals can produce renewable energy and sell what they do not use back into the national grid, thus becoming self-sustaining and contributing to our national targets.
The issues around renewable energy subsidies and energy poverty must be addressed. Too often subsidies are only taken up by those who can afford to make the necessary investments. Retrofitting is a prime example. As those who need them most often cannot avail of them due to upfront costs, these subsidies are functioning as wealth transfers to those households on higher incomes while the costs (for example carbon taxes) are regressively socialised among all users. Incentives and tax structure must look at short and long term costs of different population segments and eliminating energy poverty and protecting people from energy poverty should be a key pillar of any Just Transition platform. A state led retrofitting scheme is required to ensure that people living in social housing and poor quality housing have access. This would increase energy efficiency, reduce bills, improve health outcomes, and assist us in meeting our climate-related targets.
Social Justice Ireland welcomed the €65 million allocation in Budget 2021 for deep retrofitting of social housing stock, and the additional funding for the National Home Retrofit Scheme. However we regret the lack of detail of any supports for individual homeowners to increase the energy efficiency of their homes and reduce their household bills without front-loading the associated costs. This should be addressed as part of the Just Transition plan.
 McKinsey Global Institute (2011) Resource revolution: Meeting the world’s energy, materials, food, and water needs. London: McKinsey Global Institute. UNEP (2019) The Emissions Gap Report 2019. Nairobi: United Nations Environment Programme.