Co-ops tackle the energy crisis by leading a retrofit revolution

‘The UK’s homes and buildings are among the least efficient in Europe, which is making the crisis especially painful for households and businesses’

Our homes use 35% of the UK’s energy and produce 20% of its CO2 emissions. At the same time, the UK faces its worst energy bill crisis in at least 50 years – after rising living costs have already squeezed people still reeling from the 2008 crash and austerity that followed. 

The price cap freeze and £550 in support to households recently announced by the UK government have largely been welcomed, but it’s a temporary measure; prices are projected to remain high for several years.

In this context – and taking the climate crisis into consideration – retrofitting looks very appealing. When it comes to housing, retrofitting adapts existing buildings so that energy consumption and emissions are reduced, resulting in a more comfortable and healthier home with lower fuel bills. In the UK, Energy Performance Certificates (EPCs) indicate the energy efficiency of buildings, based on data about its construction materials, heating systems and insulation. Domestic EPCs are banded from A to G, where A is the most energy-efficient; the average energy efficiency rating for a dwelling in England and Wales is band D.

Related: Energy co-ops weigh the costs of the world’s power supply crisis

Upgrade methods include improved  insulation, airtightness and ventilation, as well as using appropriate heating and cooling systems, renewable technologies and energy-efficient materials. 

In September, two reports asked why the government hasn’t been more supportive of retrofit. 

In Tackling the UK’s energy efficiency problem – What the Truss government should learn from other countries, from the Institute for Government, Rosa Hodgkin and Tom Sasse highlight how retrofit can make a real difference to the UK energy crisis – but they note that it was entirely absent from the prime minister’s plan. 

“The UK’s homes and buildings are among the least efficient in Europe, which is making the crisis especially painful for households and businesses,” they write. “Remarkably, the Johnson government and now, seemingly, the Truss government have ignored this so far. The case for action is even stronger now that the government will be taking such large energy costs directly on to its balance sheet.”

This sentiment is echoed by Community Energy England (CEE). “Government plans have done nothing at all to correct the appalling record of the Conservative government over many years to address a key root cause of this energy crisis by retrofitting our building stock – Europe’s leakiest,” said a CEE spokesperson. 

“Major investment in retrofit is something that would genuinely improve domestic energy security as well as domestic health, happiness and economics. It would create employment, and reduce carbon emissions. It would protect property values, save huge health and welfare costs as well as being electorally popular. A no-brainer, you would think.”

In a second report, Train local, work local, stay local: Retrofit, growth, and levelling up, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) urges the government to look seriously at increasing the pace of retrofit – and to help communities in the process by training and employing a local cohort of specialists. 

“In a crisis like this, the government should be pulling every possible policy lever available to it, to reduce energy consumption, move away from gas permanently and ensure the government is not subsidising UK energy bills for years to come,” says Joshua Emden, who wrote the report. “This will require an enormous increase in the pace of retrofitting people’s homes with insulation and upgrading their boilers to heat pumps to get them off the gas grid and protect households from future price shocks.”

Related: Co-ops launch community share offer to give homes low-carbon retrofits

Retrofitting the UK’s leaky, cold, and damp homes has “always been about more than just meeting net zero targets,” he says, but adds that “in the current dire economic context, it is now a critical lever in securing economic security. In addition to cutting household energy bills, the government could make retrofitting the cornerstone of its levelling up strategy by creating jobs that can be trained for and filled locally and have a substantial impact on local economies across England.”

Emden states that retrofitting homes with good insulation and a heat pump as part of a whole-house approach could save households up to £430 a year on energy bills when the price cap freeze comes into force. At the same time, a retrofitting programme of £7bn per year in England could sustain over 400,000 direct jobs and 500,000 indirect jobs by 2030 and over 1.2 million direct jobs and 1.5 indirect jobs by 2050. 

A similar move is being explored at local level by Barton Community Retrofit Cooperative (BCRC), a programme developed by Owned By Oxford, a collaboration between the city council and community groups. BCRC aims to provide retrofit services while training and upskilling local people.

“We’re at a very early stage but things are beginning to take off,” says BCRC. “In the Barton area of Oxford there is poor housing stock – especially 1950s prefabs – and concerns about rising energy prices. We’re starting to recruit local builders interested in ‘learning through doing’ and have a local retrofit expert to lead the team. Seed-funding has been secured from Owned by Oxford and we’re now seeking resources and one or two properties to test the model.

“Our aim is to start small and build one community retrofit team, then expand and create new teams, and then replicate the model in other communities.”

Co-ops are involved in the retrofitting movement in a number of other ways, from providing site analysis and renovations, to advice and guidance, and funding through green financial products.

In Manchester, People Powered Retrofit was established as a Community Benefit Society in 2021, with support from the government, community energy co-operative Carbon Co-op, and design and research co-operative Urbed. It aims to “help more householders to retrofit their properties,” by offering clear, independent advice and support households to help them plan, procure and deliver retrofit projects.

In February, the Confederation of Cooperative Housing (CCH), the apex body for UK housing co-ops, launched a Housing Retrofit Support Programme aiming to help members deal with ageing and energy-inefficient housing to create warm, affordable and low carbon homes.

Related: CCH Annual Conference 2022: Sustainability – rethink:reset

A range of support has been developed by James Neward, CCH’s in-house retrofit expert, ranging from housing stock analysis and energy assessments right through to design, planning support and on-site delivery.

And in Ireland, the government has a target of upgrading 500,000 homes to B2 Building Energy Rating (BER) standard, by 2030. In February, the department of environment, climate and communications announced a raft of measures to achieve this, which will be administered by the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI). At the Swoboda Credit Union Conference in May, SEAI’s Josephine Maguire described how the organisation works with homeowners, businesses, communities and the government to transform how people think about, generate and use energy – and highlighted how credit unions are vital to this work. 

“[Credit unions] are in every community and every locality,” she said. “They are central to communities and can be involved in demand generation campaigns, look at supply chains and help to bring low-cost financing into the market for home retrofit.”