Cheaper, greener energy – a starting point

While some islanders spent the cold spell snug inside their super-insulated modern houses, many more were spending a small fortune trying to coax some warmth into cold, drafty homes. For them it seems a good time to check out the nice fat government grants on offer to make home life cosier and cheaper while also doing a little something to help the planet. JOHN ROBERTSON has been unravelling two of the schemes intended to help fund renewable energy heating systems …

It was before Christmas that an enticing figure caught the eye – grants of up to £6,500 to help fit an air source heat pump in your house if there is no gas mains system in your area – which means the whole of Shetland. That sort of govern­ment lolly is not dangled in front of us very often, especially when it is to do something that is going to save us money in the long run anyway. The snag is that most of us will not manage to vault all the hurdles in the way of that handsome cheque.

Unless you, or one of the other residents in your house, is old or receiving benefits it is far more likely you would qualify instead for a scheme which is not means-tested but offers a still-quite-generous grant of up to 30 per cent of the cost of a renewable energy system, up to a maximum of £4,000. These grants are available for existing houses and to people building new houses.

If you live in a council house you will not be eligible for any of the renewable energy heating grants but calling the Energy Saving Scotland helpline will provide help to cut costs and claim benefits.

At the very least anybody phoning the helpline will come away with personalised advice on tackling fuel poverty and perhaps a referral to the local insulating company Shetland Heatwise.

An air source heat pump works like a fridge in reverse, absorbing heat from outside to heat your household water and existing radiators or under-floor heating, which account for about 70 per cent of the energy used in the home.

The system is said to generate at least three to four units of heat for each unit of electricity that it uses to run.

According to the respected UK organisation Microgeneration Certification Scheme (MCS), installing an air source heat pump instead of oil central heating can save you £580 a year and prevent 1.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide escaping into the atmosphere each year. Replacing electricity can save £870 a year and six tonnes of carbon dioxide. The sums are likely to be considerably higher in Shetland due to the harsh weather.

The unit sits just outside the home with two small pipes passing through the wall to a heat exchanger within a storage cylinder which feeds radiators. The water temperature tends to be 35-45 degrees Celsius, which is lower than other boiler systems and means your house needs to be well insulated.

MCS states that a typical 5kW domestic air source system, suitable for a well-insulated house, costs £6,000-£8,000 plus VAT to buy and install, although Shetland prices might be quite different.

The ground source heat pump works in a similar way although it requires an area of land in which to bury the grid of water-filled pipe for gathering warmth from the ground. Space is also needed inside the house for the internal heat exchanger unit. The result can be a more expensive system than the air source pump.

MCS estimates replacing oil with a ground source heat pump can save £750 a year and 1.8 tonnes of carbon dioxide and replacing electricity can save £1,000 a year and seven tonnes of carbon dioxide. It suggests a price range for buying and installing an 8-12kW ground source pump of £6,000-£12,000.

A note of caution is required because Energy Saving Scotland (ESS) provides figures for the effectiveness of both types of heat source pump which are considerably lower than those offered by MCS.

The first step in all cases is to call the magic telephone number 0800 512 012. From that point you should be on your way to a cosier, cheaper home.

Yet even the prospect of having to call a strange number down south can be enough to put people off – an understandable reluctance given the hassle we all get on the phone these days from devious sales people. But you are not phoning the call centre of a hard-sell private company seeking to take advantage of your politeness and good nature.

The number takes you through to an advice centre for the Highlands and Islands, based in Inverness. Over the phone, an adviser asks simple questions to build up a picture of your home: whether it is detached, what the walls are made of, what level of insulation and heating it has and so on. They will decide which road your case should go down, either the more-generous means-tested energy assistance package or the home renewables grant scheme.

The home renewables grant scheme is there for anyone with an interest in installing micro-renewable energy systems, regard­less of income. It has been running for a few years but was rebranded last year, providing grants of up to 30 per cent for a renewable system, requiring you to foot the remaining 70 per cent. The maximum grant is £4,000 although you could get two grants that size if building a new house and intending to put in two renewable energy systems.

Once you have called the advice centre it will alert its outreach engagement officer in Shetland, Steven Coutts, to look you up. He will do a two-hour visit and com­pile a house report recommending a range of measures which could be done to improve your insulation and heating.

Steven, a young man from Yell who started in post last May, knows all the ins and outs of the scheme and aims to make your house as energy-efficient as possible. As a first step he may recommend grant funding for 270 millimetre (nearly 11 inch) loft insulation, which is the required standard these days.

He said it is quite uncommon to find that level of loft insulation already in place in local houses and it seems people are surprised and do not quite realise the potential savings from stuffing it that thick in the roof space. As he says, there is no point putting in fancy heating systems if the heat is all going out the roof.

If the house is not a drafty hole without hope of being properly insulated and heated, he will recom­mend home renewable energy systems for your particular situation and preferences, or per­haps connection to the Lerwick district heating scheme. The prospects are good because, as he said: “I’ve not done a house report that has not had a renewables recommendation.”

You get a copy of his 20-page housing report and Steven normally does a follow-up to offer more help with any problems. “It doesn’t end just when the report goes out the door,” he said.

The desired renewable system has to be one which is accredited by the Microgeneration Certifi­cation Scheme, to try to ensure quality. The scheme’s internet site lists a range of about 15 brands of approved air and ground source heat pumps and eight kinds of wind turbine.

Other renewable systems be­coming popular in Shetland include photovoltaic solar panels, which provide electricity from the sun, or solar thermal panels, which provide hot water. Energy Saving Scot­land’s website also has an additional list of heat pump types it approves of.

The Microgeneration Certifi­cation Scheme also has a list of accredited installers of all the systems, which currently includes Aert-Fast Geothermal Heating of Burra and Shetland Wind Power in Sandwick. Many plumbers and heating engineers in Shetland are also sub-contracted by UK accredited installers to come and fit the new systems.

Once the green light for a grant is given, the householder is free to contact an accredited installer to get a quote. The costs covered by the grant include buying and fitting the equipment and connecting to the house’s heat distribution system but not the cost of upgrading radiators or other aspects of the central heating system.

Steven is also the man who does the initial assessment for people planning a new-build and for develop­ers looking to build schemes, which also attract 30 per cent grants for renewable energy systems. Your income is irrelevant under this scheme too.

Again, if a second renewable system is also to be used then two grants, totalling a possible £8,000, are payable. Steven is aware of at least one house-builder who is taking advantage of that offer when building this year, with a ground source heat pump running on power generated by a small wind turbine which will also provide the house with electricity.

From The Shetland Times’ brief look into the current scheme perhaps the only drawbacks seems to be that it takes a while. A few weeks ago when talking to Steven he admitted he did not know of any home renewable systems that were yet up-and-running as a result of his home visits, which started in July. However that will change this year as those who are being grant-aided get their technology installed.

Potentially the most generous government funding scheme in­volv­ing renewables is the £60 million energy assistance package (EAP), launched last April, for those who need help most, with its ultimate prize of a grant of up to £6,500 for your own Mitsubishi Ecodan air source heat pump to provide heating and hot water.

Anyone who finds their home hard to heat should phone the Energy Saving Scotland helpline and will be asked some questions to see what help they qualify for. For instance, being aged over 60, or living with a partner who is over 60, in a house without central heating or with oil or solid fuel central heating, opens all the doors to “enhanced measures”, as does being on benefits at whatever age.

Last week the government announced it was widening the scheme to include potentially 10,000 families on low income who have children under 16. It has also asked the fuel poverty forum to investigate including people who are chronically ill or have cancer.

Scottish housing minister Alex Neil said: “We want to get the message out that everyone can benefit from this scheme in one way or another and I would encour­age anyone who is struggling with fuel bills to pick up the phone.”

Cynics will suspect that few people, if any, will clinch the elusive £6,500 grant, probably landing up instead with no more than a bundle of irritating Rockwool and some patronising advice about wearing more clothes to keep warm. However, the latest figures show that of the 28,242 households in Scotland which inquired about the EAP in the first eight months of this financial year, 5,138 benefited from “heating system measures” rather than just advice and insulation grants.

It is also claimed that those who have had various kinds of help under the scheme this financial year have seen an average increase in their annual income of £1,214 while those who got grants towards new insulation or heating systems last year saved on average £860 on their fuel bills.

Strangely, Shetland has not been getting an equal share of the help dished out across Scotland, prompt­ing MSP Tavish Scott to mount an investigation. In the eight months from April to the end of November last year just 50 Shetland house­holds got support under the EAP while in Orkney 174 households benefited and in the Western Isles 372 households were helped.

Mr Scott said at least twice as many households in Shetland should be getting help if the support was being shared equally. He is trying to find out why Shetland has done poorly and is seeking infor­mation about how many people had applications to the scheme rejected during the period and whether the scheme was poorly advertised in some areas.

Before getting a sniff of the £6,500 grants you have to pass through the EAP’s four stages: Stage 1 is advice over the phone which is available to all; Stage 2 may involve a benefits and tax credit check to see if you are entitled to more state allowances or you may be offered help to switch to a social tariff, which is cheaper than normal energy charges; Stage 3 is only for homeowners or tenants who rent privately and, should you qualify, it offers free loft insulation for homes with less than 60 centimetres of insulation plus free cavity wall insulation if there is none already; Stage 4, if you get there, is where the air source heat pumps lurk but it also offers more insulation, such as draft proofing, and a free central heating system or new boiler or connection to the Lerwick district heating system. As the homeowner you must have lived there for at least one year. Private sector tenants may also qualify.

If you seem to qualify for the so-called enhanced measures due to your house having a poor energy rating, an energy surveyor may be sent along to visit and do a proper assessment. New homes tend to have a rating of 80 or more out of 100 in a home energy survey whereas the Scottish average is 60. A poor energy rating of 38 or less entitles you to more help.

For some reason the air source heat pump is the only heat pump option approved under the EAP scheme and the only approved model is the Mitsubishi Ecodan. Recently Scottish Gas signed a contract with Mitsubishi in Living­ston to supply 1,200 of the heat pumps for the scheme by the end of March.

Although the EAP is run by Energy Saving Scotland, it has a contract with Scottish Gas to operate it. Unfortunately there have been reports of problems with petty bureaucracy, shifting goal posts and long delays in Shetland, prompting the MSP to look into the matter.

The scheme evolved from the controversial EAGA scheme of 2002-2008 which hit the headlines in Shetland due to shoddy plumbing by sub-contractors from south which left some old folk’s houses messy, unsightly and even dan­gerous. There have been no such reports under the existing scheme.

The path to getting subsidised renewables under the EAP or the home renewables scheme may seem a bit of a bewildering maze and the qualifying rules do alter but the only solution is to dial 0800 512 012 and see where it takes you. You have nothing to lose but your goosebumps.


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