Saturday 2nd August 2014                 Change text size:

How energy labelling cost some residents the Earth



Photo: University of Salford via Flickr

Fuel poverty hit the headlines again this week with This is Money amongst others reporting that the government is seeking to change the definition of the key measure of ‘fuel poverty’.

The number of ‘fuel poor’ households could rise to 8.1m by 2016, according to a Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) consultation document. Using the new measure for fuel poverty, this figure would be cut to 2.9m households.

Is this yet another example of the government’s seeming inability to tackle the problem of fuel poverty head on? Rather than another attempt to massage the figures, why not do something practical, like doing away with harmful initiatives that are causing consumer heating bills to soar rather than fall. Energy labelling standards is a case in point.

recent exposé by the BBC’s Rip-Off Britain series revealed how vulnerable residents on two UK housing developments saw their energy bills escalate as a result of the energy standards approved heating system in place.

According to the BBC report, the residents had been advised that energy bills would be lower due to the NIBE exhaust air source heat pump system in place, a renewable technology that works by pumping waste air back into the heating and hot water system.

The programme showed how residents across the two estates soon received energy bills four times the predicted amount which they struggled to pay. During the investigation, the manufacturers insisted that the blame lay not on the product but on poor specification, installation and usage.

The air source heat pump was backed by an Energy Performance Certificate. And there’s the rub. The energy labelling of this product had misled the housing associations as to its real life energy saving benefits in a new build development. The air source heat pump was insufficiently large to heat the houses, which meant that it needed to rely on the immersion heater backup to provide the heat. So instead of providing adequate energy efficient, affordable heating by itself, the heat pump system depended on the support of expensive electricity, hence the astronomically high bills.

Rather than taking vulnerable residents out of fuel poverty, the energy standards approved heat pump was placing people in deeper financial difficulties. For one resident the situation became so severe that she was reduced to making a stark decision between buying food or keeping warm.

The question the BBC and we should be asking is, why bother creating an energy efficiency standard if the product will not be capable of operating to a high efficiency level in real life, real world situations? If the standard promotes idealised rather than real world efficiencies, then it’s of no benefit to the consumer; it’s skewed to work in the interest of the manufacturer. The silver spoon it appears to offer might well turn out to be wooden after all.

Back on the housing estates, the solution reached by one of the housing associations was to rip out the air source heat pumps and replace them with gas condensing boilers. Fuel bills went down immediately. The condensing boiler is a tried and tested heating solution. Fitting a boiler with a passive flue gas heat recovery device like the Zenex GasSaver reduces bills still further.

Yet from 2016, government legislation will make it illegal to fit a gas boiler into a new build property. And many London boroughs in control of local authority district housing schemes are already blocking gas boilers in favour of air source heat pumps. According to Rip-off Britain, an estimated 15,000 of these systems have been fitted across the country to date, as developers seek to make new build developments ‘greener’ in line with government targets.

Someone should advise them to watch Rip-off Britain as a matter of urgency.

The UK government knows that energy labels are misleading the public. It’s not just heat pumps, but all manner of ‘renewable’ or low-carbon products that on one hand achieve the highest energy efficiency rating, but on the other are penalised in UK Building Regulations for being, well, less efficient. How is the consumer or, for that matter, the professional employed in the building industry supposed to deal with this? It seems that as long as the government keeps on subsidising and promoting these misleading positions then both the consumer and the industry will be virtually powerless to change tack.

Tackling the government over these issues isn’t easy as the standard response is to state the fact that energy labels are the responsibility of European legislation. From my experience, the European Commission is more interested in claiming carbon savings than energy savings, conveniently focusing on idealised test standards that operate outside of the frame of reference for standard efficiency products or that of consumer needs.

Take for example gas boilers that under newly proposed European test standards Lot1, ERP (Energy Related Products) will be tested at between 30-36°C when the boiler is at low gas/fan rates, effectively showing the boiler at its highest possible efficiency but not one that a consumer can benefit from. The inevitable result from this sort of situation is that the science of fact eventually creeps in, in this case, SAP (Standard Assessment Procedure) where currently A-rated gas boilers are de-rated to band B and in reality should be a C. Perhaps this is a step too far for the government and regulators to defend…

At some point there will need to be a correction, just as in the case of the recent GCSE exams. However, as we have seen, changing the marking system mid stream can be extremely unpopular with voters and the industry alike.

Consumers face real world experiences such as the conflict between the misleading energy labelling and unnecessarily high energy bills. Isn’t it time that the government took a serious look at what the European Commission is trying to impose on the UK?  Unless we get this sorted we will never be able to revert the course of rising fuel poverty.

Rather than changing the goal posts on fuel poverty to make the statistics look better, the government should make a stand and address energy labelling standards as a matter of urgency, changing them to benefit consumers. And we too must act now and respond to the DECC consultation by 30 November.

It’s time to stop this UK rip-off energy business now.

Chris Farrell is the managing director of Zenex Technologies, a British company founded in 2003 specialising in innovative energy saving products for both the domestic and commercial markets. This post originally featured on his blog, The Green Entrepreneur.

Further reading:

How low-cost bolt-ons could bring green deal success

Cut carbon or put profit first? Who says you can’t do both?

EU energy legislation: it’s time to steady the ship


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