Cold cottage rescue
Isolation from mains gas can spell financial hardship. Alex Turner investigates how Cornish landlords are exploring renewable energy solutions to rural fuel poverty
A house in the countryside, warmed by a coal fire, is an enticingly romantic image for many city dwellers - but it can also be a recipe for fuel poverty.
Across England just 1 per cent of 3.7 million social housing tenants use solid fuel as their main heating source. In total 15 per cent are not connected to the national gas grid, according to 2009 data from the Communities and Local Government department. Among rural communities figures are often far higher, with many reliant on expensive coal or oil-fired central heating, or inefficient electric storage appliances.
In Cornwall, limited mains gas access coincides with high living costs and restricted earning opportunities, making utility bills an even greater stretch, plummeting households into fuel poverty. Local landlords, however, have been using these conditions as a platform for innovation, putting renewable heating technologies to the test to make homes more energy efficient and to ease the pinch on customers. So how have they gone about this?
‘We’ve got lots of properties off mains gas - heating solutions are limited,’ explains Nick Olgard, planned maintenance manager at Cornwall Housing, a new organisation amalgamating housing functions formerly belonging to Cornwall Council and arm’s-length management organisation Carrick Housing. ‘[Within the old North Cornwall Council area] we set aside money we’d got from utilities companies for installing energy-efficiency measures, and use it to trial different heating systems.’
Cornwall Council’s project, which ran until 1 April, when the local authority’s homes transferred to Cornwall Housing, focused on 3,321 properties in which around 8 per cent rely on solid fuel and just 37 per cent are hooked up to the national grid - most of the remaining 55 per cent rely on electric heating systems. It has evolved into a larger pilot, financed mostly from heating maintenance budgets at an annual cost of around £125,000 over the past three years.
Contractor Mears has swapped around 40 solid fuel systems which were beyond economic repair for air source heat pumps. These devices employ refrigeration principles to draw heat from outside air as cold as -15C, and can power heating and hot water.
Tenants such as Rosalind Cocker, who was struggling to afford to heat her home but apprehensive about moving away from using coal, are now able to keep warm while seeing a reduction in their fuel bills.
Customers aren’t obliged to switch to renewable energy, which makes it more important to explain what’s on offer and how it works, as John Praoline, electrical renewable energy manager at Mears, points out: ‘[ASHPs] look like an air con unit; tenants can’t always understand how that can give them heat and hot water,’ he says. ‘I answer questions, put the technology into layman’s terms - and about a month after installation return to ensure they’re using it efficiently.’
ASHP units typically cost between £6,000 and £10,000 and take five days to fit. They can vastly reduce bills - but they’re not the only solution. Penwith Housing Association, which is part of Devon & Cornwall Housing Group and manages 8,000 properties in Cornwall, installed the UK’s first ground-source heating in a 1998 new build scheme and has pursued the technology.
‘I saw homes in rural areas with high fuel poverty potential,’ reveals group sustainability manager Denys Stephens. ‘The alternatives were solid fuel, storage heaters or oil, which has its own issues of being difficult to purchase. There was a crying need for something better - we’d done it in new build, why not retrofit?’
PHA, whose properties are 80 per cent on the gas grid and 2 per cent solid-fuel reliant, has retrofitted 63 homes with ground-source heating since 2003, at a cost of around £500,000. These systems use the same principles as ASHP, but draw heat from a loop buried in the ground.
Last year, PHA also completed its £150,000 HeatPod project - again in conjunction with Mears - which saw a 1950s terraced property retrofitted with high-quality insulation and a range of renewable energy solutions to demonstrate how the Retrofit for the Future target of 80 per cent CO2 emission reduction could be achieved.
While the HeatPod is an experimental ideal, landlords are optimistic about expanding renewable heating - provided funds become available.
‘The [government’s] renewable heat incentive [which aims to provide long-term financial support to the use of renewable heating technologies and is likely to launch in 2013] isn’t in place yet, so there’s a hiatus,’ admits Mr Stephens. ‘In renewable heat there’s no funding source to keep a programme going.’
‘We will qualify for the incentive, but it has been put back,’ adds Mr Olgard. ‘The pressure’s on us while the government changes tariffs.’
In the meantime, there are many more tenants like Ms Cocker, whose quality of life would benefit greatly from a much-needed upgrade to their heating systems.
Renewing quality of life
Cornwall Housing tenant Rosalind Cocker used to struggle to keep her bungalow warm in winter. ‘The living area was difficult to heat,’ she explains. ‘All we had was an open fire with a back boiler and old-fashioned electric storage heaters - really inefficient.’
Mrs Cocker, 55, and her husband Andrew moved into the stone-built former tin miners’ cottage outside Tintagel in 2010. Mrs Cocker has a spinal injury and the damage to her nerves means she gets cold easily, but when winter came, heating bills soared to £46 per week - £31 on coal on the open fire and £15 to use storage heaters in the dining room and hallway - leaving the couple unable to afford to heat bedrooms.
Following an occupational therapist’s assessment, an affordable solution was sought and the well-insulated property was judged suitable for air source heating. Now their property is equipped with an air source heat pump, the couple’s total utility bills were cut from nearly £200 per month during winter to £82 on average.
Mrs Cocker laughs as she remembers her uncertainty about the technology. ‘When my coal fire was blocked off I was dubious in case the system wasn’t as good as I’d been led to believe,’ she recalls, ‘but we leave our thermostat at 15 degrees and the house stays at a constant temperature. It ticks along with no noise, it’s clean and there are no fumes - it’s fantastic.’