The challenge of rural decarbonisation

Jill Starley-Grainger from elemental details how switching to cleaner forms of energy presents unique challenges for those who live off the gas grid in rural areas. Part of this article can be read below.

Energy prices are sky high and the government’s goals around decarbonisation will help to reduce both energy bills in the long-term, but in the short-term, there’s no easy fix. Many households are faced with a choice of either increasingly unaffordable power bills or taking out loans to pay for greener technologies that will provide cheaper heating and electricity.

Nowhere is the affordability of decarbonisation more pressing than in rural communities.

“Incomes earned in the rural economy are 6% less than the national average, yet the cost of living is higher,” explains Graham Biggs, Chief Executive of Rural Services Network. In addition, homes outside of urban areas are typically larger and either detached or semi-detached, which makes heating them even more expensive.

In an analysis of the energy performance certificates (EPC) of households, the Energy Saving Trust (EST) found that “nearly 20% of homes in rural areas are in the very energy inefficient F and G categories, compared to just 2.4% in urban areas”

A complicating factor is the ability to connect to gas supplies, with the EST finding that while more than 91% of urban households have a gas connection, only 40% of rural homes are connected to the gas network.

This means around 60% of homes in rural areas in the UK are off the gas grid, which requires them to rely on other energy sources to keep their homes warm, typically electricity and oil, but also LPG, coal or wood to a lesser degree.

Switching to a greener energy supply for off-the-gas-grid homes isn’t straightforward. For the vast majority of rural homes, the preferred option is a heat pump.

All hail the heat pump?

Heat pumps – whether air source or ground source – can be very energy efficient in the long run, and if used correctly, can make homes warmer while significantly reducing bills.

But the initial outlay can be too high for individual households – around £9,000 for an air source heat pump or £13,000 for ground source – and associated costs can also put them out of reach for rural developers, housing associations and local authorities.

The first challenge is electricity reliability and demand – for developers building in rural areas, the fact that all new homes must also have an electrical vehicle charging point sees an added strain on the electricity supply.

Richard DeVille, Development Director of English Rural Housing Association, which provides and manages more than 1,500 affordable homes in villages throughout southern England, is facing this challenge with some of its homes. He says: “The higher electrical loading required for both air source heat pumps and electric vehicle charging points often isn’t sufficient locally. That means we may have to provide a new substation at a significant cost, often around £100,000, which can really impact on the financial viability of any scheme when we are only building maybe six to eight homes.”

And when heat pumps are retrofitted into homes, English Rural and other developers often have to install new pipework and larger radiators to work with them effectively, further pushing up installation costs.

“There also appears to be a current shortage with the availability of the heat pumps themselves, with many customers having to wait months to procure them as the demand is outstripping supply,” says Richard. “Finding enough competent qualified installers can also be difficult, as there simply aren’t enough to meet recent demand.

To read the full elemental article click here


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