Austin Baggett of Sava explains how housing associations can use data to monitor the sustainability of their stock on their journey towards net zero
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How important is data when it comes to unlocking zero carbon?
Establishing the current energy performance of your housing stock is the first step in your journey to zero carbon. What gets measured can be managed, so quality data is vital. Carbon emissions for existing homes are calculated through the government’s Standard Assessment Procedure (SAP), which requires up to 150 pieces of energy data on each home – or 1.5 million pieces of data for every 10,000 properties. That data will have come from all sorts of sources; some high quality, some poor quality, and some data where you have no idea what its quality is. But understanding your data and establishing where you are at this moment must be the first stage of your net zero strategy. If you have poor-quality data, you’re going to make poor-quality decisions about how best to get to zero carbon.
Are social landlords in a good position currently to manage their data and establish where they are?
Many landlords have huge challenges. We undertook a piece of research a few years ago that found that one in three housing providers have SAP ratings calculated for less than half their stock, while only 14% are confident in being able to spot inconsistencies in their data. As the carbon agenda becomes a higher priority, so must the management of their energy data.
How can housing providers set about gathering this data? What are the most important considerations to keep in mind?
One of the most important aspects to get right is to maximise the value you get from Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs). All too often, housing providers commission EPCs but fail to get access to the rich dataset that went into creating them. And yet, if your EPC assessments are performed under the Elmhurst EPC accreditation scheme – as the vast majority are – then it is possible to retrieve the underlying Reduced Data Standard Assessment Procedure (RdSAP) using an automatic routine that inputs it directly into your asset management system.
You also need to be able to trust the data collected by your energy assessor. Energy assessors differ in quality – some are poorly trained or poorly paid, and quality suffers. Ideally you would train someone internally to do your EPCs. But if you must outsource it, find a small group of assessors who you can work with as if they were part of your organisation. Test their knowledge, educate them about your stock and allow them access to information and experts within your organisation so they can feed this knowledge into their assessments.
It’s a shift in mindset. Don’t think of EPCs as a burden, but as an opportunity to provide you with trusted insightful data on your stock that can be viewed within your asset management system.
What can organisations do to make sure their energy performance data can be a trusted benchmark to help them work towards targets?
Many organisations have data scattered all over the place. We talk about creating a ‘single version of the truth’. Put all your energy data in one place – ideally your asset management system. This means that your data is a subset of your full asset dataset, and prevents it from becoming inaccurate – which is often the case when energy data lives outside of the main asset management system. In creating a single version of the truth, you will need to consider your data hierarchy. Which data do you trust and which do you have less confidence in? Data sources such as gas maintenance records, condition surveys and void checks will add to the energy story of your stock. But there will be conflicts. For instance, you are likely to have more confidence in your boiler data from your latest CP17 gas safety certificate than you would the boiler data from an eight-year-old EPC.
Similarly, you need to create routines so that your asset management system – your single version of the truth – is kept up-to-date. For instance, ensure that those CP17 certificates, or schedule of works, are continually cross-referenced against the energy data stored in your asset management system.
What if I am missing data? Can I still calculate a benchmark?
It is important to look at your whole stock. Most social landlords only have full RdSAP data – the data that is used to produce an EPC – on no more than 50% of their housing stock. Only analysing half of your stock is likely to misguide your investment strategy.
With energy analysis software it’s possible to generate a SAP rating with just 12 to 15 pieces of essential data. The right software can infer the missing data, and this allows you to generate meaningful outputs such as the SAP rating, the carbon emissions and even the possible improvement options. From there, you can add to the dataset to make your calculations even more accurate.
Pieces of energy data per home required for SAP modelling
Expected reduction in carbon intensity of the UK electricity grid by 2050
What are the benefits of a data-driven approach to sustainability?
Longhurst Group owns and manages more than 23,000 homes across the Midlands and the East of England. It has transformed its energy data over the past two years – and experienced all the issues that I have mentioned.
For instance, data associated with lodged EPCs was not being consistently downloaded into its asset management system, while the stock condition data, including energy characteristics, was not being used to assess the energy efficiency of the stock accurately.
However, now the organisation has a coherent dataset, allowing the team to have confidence in the energy data baseline on which it can now consider its improvement strategy for meeting its carbon objectives.
What about the future? How will changes outside the housing sector impact housing providers’ zero carbon strategies?
One significant change is the ongoing decarbonisation of the electricity grid, achieved through swapping out dirty coal and gas-fired power stations, and replacing them with renewables, particularly offshore wind.
Between now and 2050, the carbon emissions for producing a kilowatt hour (kWh) of electricity is expected to fall by a staggering 94% – and that is already on top of massive decarbonisation over the past 30 years.
Why is this so important? Building regulations and the SAP methodology currently model emissions at around 0.5kg/kWh. The new version of SAP, expected to be introduced next year, will model carbon at around 0.14kg, to take into account the profound changes that have taken place in how we generate electricity in the UK. And by 2030, this will have dropped to less than 0.1kg. So if you’re using electrically driven air source heat pumps as your heating system of choice in the future, it is essential that you model them with the correct carbon factor.
This decarbonisation of the electricity grid can act as a beacon of optimism for the housing sector.
Back in 1990, this level of decarbonisation was unthinkable. It shows that with political will, planning, technological improvements and investment, radical things can happen.
And it can happen with our housing stock, too.
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