Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland answers the great big green energy questions

The low-carbon, A-rated (BER) home with just a sip of energy needed for heating and cooling. Will we all someday live in such a super-house? Big journeys start with a single step. Pictures: iStock

Kya deLongchamps asks the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland to address five key issues on home upgrades THE Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton, has announced that he is open to the idea of annual hikes in carbon taxes.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Richard Bruton, has announced that he is open to the idea of annual hikes in carbon taxes. Upward changes to the levy will be considered for the 2020 budget. The cost of the fossil fuel most of us rely on for central heating is on the ascent — again.

A small spend or a whole house renovation, just how do existing houses get anywhere towards an A or B Building Energy Rating? I asked the team department heads, John Randles and Josephine Maguire, National Coordinator/Better Energy (SEAI) to tee up some answers.

Phased improvements to an older house or one big push — outside of a pilot programme by SEAI or a progressive local authority initiative, some of us just can’t go ‘all-in’. Can we get to A1 BER rating from a dead start?

Deciding what improvements you should make to your home to improve its energy efficiency can be daunting.

Your first step should be to get a Building Energy Rating (BER) for your home. This will show you the energy performance and comes with an advisory report that suggests what works should be done to improve it and where to start.

  • Other considerations before you commence any upgrades include:

  • How much money do you spend on energy?
  • How long will it take for an energy upgrade to pay for itself in cost savings?
  • Do the energy-saving measures provide additional benefits that are important to you — for example, increased warmth and comfort, better indoor air quality, less outside noise, improved building appearance?
  • What is your budget?

If you are looking to do a major renovation to bring your home up to an A-rating, there is a 50% grant available (T&Cs apply as this scheme is on a limited basis). It typically involves more extensive renovations including insulation, windows, mechanical ventilation and a renewable heating system and will require a considerable upfront investment from you.

Upgrading everything in the one go — you have a very well-insulated home that requires minimum heat to stay comfortable. The upfront spend is in the area of €30,000 including grant aid, seai.ie/grants/home-energy-grants/deep-retrofit-grant.

Say I have an ordinary family with one industrial wage in a house built before changes prompted by Part L of the building regs’. The energy performance of the house is poor — perhaps a BER of D or E. Where do we start placing a modest budget?

It is more efficient to do all the work at the same time, if you can afford it. However, if you are not in a position to consider such extensive upgrades all at once, you could consider taking a staged approach.

Improving your insulation should be your first priority. The most cost-effective way is to examine your attic insulation. Many people believe their attics are insulated but they are usually not up to standard. By properly insulating the attic and walls of your home, you can save up to €600 per year on your heating bills.

Address your heating system — SEAI recommends replacing old, inefficient boilers with a heat pump. If your home already has a highly efficient boiler with proper heating controls, you should plan to replace this with a heat pump when it needs replacing. Install rooftop solar to heat hot water (solar thermal) or to generate electricity (photovoltaic).

It is up to you to decide how much work to engage in, depending on your budget and level of ambition. Many homeowners will achieve a B2 by doing wall and attic insulation and installing a heat pump. A BER can identify the highest priority items. Grants for these projects range in amounts from €400 to €6,000 and typically cover around a third of the cost of the works in an average home. There are also free home energy upgrades available for people in receipt of certain welfare payments.

Readers have expressed mixed feelings about installing heat pump (HP) technology for a retrofit (second hand home situation). Tell us more about what to consider before we move to this largely renewable heat source?

To operate most effectively and economically heat pumps should only be installed in well-insulated homes. The BER database shows that 300,000 homes in Ireland could already be heat pump ready. These tend to be homes built from 2003 onward or older homes that have been well insulated. Otherwise you will need to insulate your walls and attic and you may have to check if your windows are still performing well.

Heat pumps are an environmentally friendly and extremely efficient alternative to fossil fuel heating systems. The most common heat pumps work by converting energy from the air outside of your home into heat inside. Your energy bills will lower than for fossil fuels, although you will have a higher electricity bill. They can work with both under-floor heating and (suitable) existing radiators, providing an even heat throughout the house.

They have less carbon emissions than fossil fuel heating systems and for every unit of electricity, you use, you get at least three units of heat. Even the most efficient boilers offer less than one unit of heat for one unit of oil or gas. In addition, our electricity is continually becoming cleaner as more and more renewables are being used to generate power. Start by contacting an SEAI-registered independent technical advisor for advice. SEAI provides a grant of €200 towards this service and it is payable with the heat-pump grant; seai.ie/grants/home-energy-grants/heat-pump-systems.

As the latest grant-aided renewable technology in the scheme, what has been the response to photovoltaic (PV) and what are the rewards?

To date, there are nearly 500 grant-funded solar PV installations. People are typically installing it with hot water diverters which use the excess power to heat water. An emerging solution is the use of a battery storage system. This system will detect when you are exporting energy to the grid, and then will store this energy within a battery.

With the grant, a typical three-bed semi-detached house would spend about €2,400 on a solar panel PV system (without a battery) and would save approximately €260 per year on their electricity bills. To calculate how much a solar PV system will save you and what size of grant you are eligible for here: seai/grants/home-grants/solar-pv/

For most homes, a system sized at 2kW or lower is most practical (six-eight panels). This will generate enough electricity to cover about one-third of your needs.

Where are the feted green mortgages and loans? Our local credit union is offering 8.5% on a “renovation” loan. Are there lenders or suppliers who are getting on board with low or no-interest financing?

There are currently no such products widely available in the market. Research by SEAI shows that over 85% of those who upgrade their home do so using their own funds. Further research of Irish consumers has also shown that almost half would consider taking out a loan to pay for energy efficiency improvements.

We do need more sustainable models of financing and funding home upgrades. There is a cross-European pilot programme with banks testing low-cost financing for home retrofit which will hopefully see lower-cost mortgages come into the market (https://eemap.energyefficientmortgages.eu/).

To meet our collective ambition for a sustainable housing stock, more low-cost finance packages will be essential. SEAI has developed a detailed plan for supporting and financing home energy upgrades and are testing a number of financing models.

The Department of Communications, Environment and Climate Action has provided a capital budget of €800,000 in 2019 to provide funding support for a suite of project trials that SEAI will engage in to test various mechanisms for financing home retrofit. The results of these trials will also be used to inform the future strategy of financing home retrofit in Ireland.

The first of these trials is a pilot project SEAI is supporting with 20 credit unions across a number of areas in Dublin, Galway and the South West Regions — a one-stop shop to members which includes financing home energy improvements at a special lower cost interest rate of 6.9%. We are currently seeking other proposals for pilots in the low-cost financing area in 2019.

Let there be light

Check out the Hue Ambience B22 Kit, pictured above, and priced at €189.99, Argos. Philips Hue offers an easy way to buy into intelligent wireless lighting control — with a plug-and-play system of smart bulbs and a hub (Hue Bridge) linked through your home router by app.

The energy-efficient LED lights come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and models and you can add 50 Philips Hue lights and accessories to one bridge. The lighting patterns can be as intuitive as you like — waking you, energising or relaxing you with less or more illumination on a timed programme or to voice command.

You can even set the lights to come on randomly when you are away. Hue lights can be used directly with Amazon Echo Plus and you can ask Alexa to “discover the device”.

There’s even a groovy feature light, the Hue Go, which using its rechargeable battery can detach from the mains for lighting anywhere that suits.

For full details of how the system works go online to metthue.com. Starter pack (Bridge and two white lights) is priced at €69.99, Hue Go, €84.99, Argos.

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