Trends and ‘hype’ are not a new concept, we’ve seen them followed in every facet of life. They help drive innovation and change, but do trends exist in Net Zero? Let’s discuss what some Net Zero trends are, what they mean for the housing sector, and how they can disregard tenant voice.

Which Net Zero trends live up to the hype? 

Firstly, what is a trend?

I doubt that when I say the word ‘trend,’ that Net Zero is the first thing that pops into your mind. But, just like any other topic, there are pathways to Net Zero or heating solutions that catch the public’s attention more than others. The definition of ‘trend’ is a general direction in which something is developing or changing. I find that the most ‘trendy’ topics revolve around fashion, hair styles, home decorating, food, etc. But, since starting this role as Net Zero Engagement Officer at TPAS Cymru, I’ve come to realize that trends reach as far as Net Zero in the housing sector.

It's important to remind ourselves that trends are not inherently bad. There’s usually a good reason why something has become a trend, but it’s crucial to look at where the trend originated and who it is pushed by. Trends and hyped topics tend to be fast-paced, quick moving, and can turnover in the blink of an eye, which is why trends should be treaded carefully when speaking on major works that will be done in people’s homes.

How do trends apply to Net Zero housing?

Achieving Net Zero does not have a ‘one size fits all’ solution, which is why Wales will need to see the implementation of many different solutions for low carbon heating systems. Every tenant has different needs, wants, and qualities that need to be taken into consideration when doing works on a home, and this must be considered before moving forward with plans. Let’s outline what I’ve seen trending in the Net Zero housing space and discuss whether the hype stands up.

Trend 1: Heat Pumps

Heat pumps have been around since the 1800’s, but have gained popularity in the last ten years, and in Welsh housing in recent years because of the cost-of-living crisis and the desire to become more energy independent as a nation.

The trend and hype can be seen in:

  1. There has been a significant rise in mainstream advertisements for heat pumps, which TPAS Cymru has been thrilled to see, as it shows that a low carbon solution is going mainstream and gaining traction.
  2. Heat pump installation figures in Europe are going off the charts. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused most of Europe to get away from gas and oil dependency.
  3. Heat pumps are now the leading solution in social housing discussions when it comes to what to do when a gas boiler needs to be replaced.

Does it justify the hype and trending social media chat?

Heat pumps may be new to many in Wales but are proven, well established options across the world. They help lower a tenant’s carbon footprint while offering a more consistent heating solution, but there are still valid tenant experience setbacks and questions to be asked around heat pumps. For one, are they cheaper to run than gas? One major setback that tenants are finding with heat pumps is that heat pumps are usually required to be always on and create consistent heat. This means that there are continuous running costs, and this can add up. Although consistent heat is good for several reasons, there are tenants, especially those in poorly insulated properties, who cannot afford the high prices that their heat pumps are running at. 

Another setback with heat pumps is that a water cylinder must be installed, which requires space that could otherwise be used for storage. Many tenants, myself included, wouldn’t know where to store the cylinder, and know that it would mean sacrificing precious storage space. Is this the right type of system for small properties such as flats?

Trend 2: Hydrogen Heating

There is some big money behind hyping hydrogen heating in homes and it is trending in traditional right-wing media and sponsored academics. It has gained a lot of popularity in recent months, mostly around the time that Jacob Rees-Mogg claimed that hydrogen was a ‘silver bullet’ in cutting greenhouse gases. Hydrogen heating is pitched like an obvious solution, with only a few minor adjustments for people living with gas.... right? Wrong.

I won’t go into it now, as we discuss in depth the benefits and drawbacks on hydrogen heating in our TPAS Cymru Net Zero Learning and Development Support sessions, but we have serious concerns about hydrogen heating. There are issues with costs, safety, health, and our carbon footprint, which many big oil companies are conveniently leaving out. New ways of making hydrogen have a place in the global Net Zero solution, but we are sceptical that it has a place in housing.

Trend 3: Fabric First approach to retrofitting

Social landlords and local authorities have different pathway to making their housing stock lower energy and green, but there is one pathway that has been more popular than others: fabric first. This is making sure to suitably insulate the property well first before installing new heating systems.

Fabric first is a great place to start homes on their pathway to Net Zero, but it shouldn’t be used as a stopping point or reason to delay alternative heat solutions. Some landlords have implemented a fabric first approach, and then they stopped continuing works, claiming to need time to consider next steps and make sure that they make the right decision in terms of what system to put into people’s homes.

I see 2 issues with this trend.

  1. We need to get homes off gas faster if we are to make impact in decarbonising homes. Heat pumps can make a significant difference in reducing our carbon emissions.
  2. In addition, doing work at different times means double the disruption for tenants, and less chance for tenant consultancy on the complete pathway to zero. There are also issues with the sealing and insulation of the fabric if heating/heat pump work is done afterwards. Replacing windows after external wall insulation is more complicated, so is it better to a whole home in one go?

So, does the hype stand up?

Many RSL’s and local authorities are still at early stages in their Net Zero journey and will be tasked with finding the best solution to Net Zero for their tenants. What might work for some will not work for others, and each tenant’s needs must be evaluated and added to the equation. It’s important to keep in mind that some of the topics discussed above may be hyped, but they’re hyped and talked about for good reason. We need better transparency in the sector via Optimized Retrofit Programme learnings, shared case studies, including more focus on the tenant experience.

What we preach at TPAS Cymru through our events and Net Zero training sessions is that there is not one type of tenant or person, and there therefore isn’t one magic solution to Net Zero. Each day, more and more technology is released to support people in living more low carbon in their homes, and I’m sure that more will be developed in the coming years. But we unfortunately don’t have time to spare when it comes to reducing our emissions, and it’s crucial that landlords and tenants are up to date on what Net Zero really means and why it’s prudent that action is taken now.

For more information on our informative, up-to-date Net Zero sessions, please go to TPAS Cymru Net Zero

Hannah Richardson, Net Zero Engagement Officer, TPAS Cymru