Comment: Ashden's Harriet Lamb warns that the UK government’s new Heat and Buildings strategy to tackle climate change is doomed unless it ramps up training of young people to join the green economy

Skills shortages are something we’ve been hearing a lot about in the UK. Not enough HGV drivers, labour shortages pushing pig farmers to the brink, soaring gas prices and rumours of empty shop shelves this Christmas.

It’s the same story on the green side of the house. We need to train a national workforce with the new qualifications and skillsets to revolutionise the way our homes are built, insulated and heated, shifting from gas to renewables, to meet the 2050 carbon emissions targets.

The release of the government’s Heat and Buildings Strategy yesterday, a roadmap for delivery, falls short of hitting the target.  The strategy offers £5,000 to households to install heat pumps and pledges to invest £60m in heat-pump innovation to reduce costs. This is welcome, but only goes part way to solve the problem. The majority of homes in the UK must be insulated and made more energy-efficient before gas boilers are replaced, otherwise electricity costs faced by households will rocket. So heating should be tackled as part of long-term policies to encourage home insulation and improvements, with major skills strategies underpinning both.

To shift Britain's housing stock from fossil fuel heating sources to renewables, we need to be retrofitting 1.8 homes per minute, all the way to 2050

According to the Committee on Climate Change, our 23 million homes account for a whacking one-fifth of all UK emissions. To shift this housing stock from fossil fuel heating sources, such as oil and gas, to renewables, we need to be retrofitting 1.8 homes per minute, all the way to 2050. This will require a major ramp-up of skills, both in heat pump installation and retrofit.

There are just 1,000 heat pump installers, compared to 96,000 gas engineers. To change the way we heat our homes means also having a long-term plan to improve and insulate them and the training plan to be sure that we have the workforce ready to do the work.  Anyone who tried applying for the ill-fated Green Homes Grant knows that it was almost impossible to find the builders to do the work. The danger is that the same story is played out with heat pumps.  

By contrast, an ambitious retrofit programme alongside the heating shifts could create hundreds of thousands of jobs for skilled tradespeople right across the country – carpenters, plasterers and electricians. It’s an aging workforce and this is a chance for young people to seek careers in the new green economy. We will also need a workforce of 36,000 retrofit coordinators to ensure insulation work is carried out to rigorous quality standards and avoid Grenfell-style disasters. At present, we have just 2% of the number needed. These are sobering statistics.

An ambitious retrofit programme could create thousands of jobs. (Credit: Arturs Budkevics/Shutterstock)

Paul Harris is a heat-pump engineer from Buckinghamshire with HD Services, which installs ground source heat pumps for the Kensa group. He points out that the technology is constantly developing and improving, and that it’s not a "one size fits all" model for installation:

“One domestic customer wanted to install a system at his home in Stroud but there wasn’t enough water coming from his bore hole to make it work, so we put in an underground storage tank to store the water from the bore hole and feed the heat pump with the required water flow. There’s usually a solution,” he explains.

He is insistent that we have to move people away from using fossil fuels, and points out that whilst the renewable energy systems cost more to install, the current Domestic Renewable Heat Incentive, and now the new Heat and Buildings Strategy grant, will make it more affordable for people to switch from carbon-emitting forms of heating. And it can pay for itself, compared to installing a cheaper gas boiler, within two to four years.

The government must invest in new energy efficiency training facilities and low carbon skills development

Harris also points out that training for installers is vital: a poorly fitted system won’t last as long as ones that have been properly installed.

In fact, at Ashden we are insistent that training needs to start right back in school and colleges, with the courses and careers guidance offered to young people – many of whom have shown their passion for taking action on the climate. The government must invest in the further education sector to train instructors, develop new courses and provide capital investment in new energy-efficiency training facilities and low-carbon skills development. 

Previous attempts to boost green skills have fallen flat on their faces due to stop-and-start government policy. Many smaller companies and further education colleges are reluctant to invest in training unless they are sure of the long-term demand. That’s why the Heat and Buildings strategy needed a more comprehensive package of longer-term incentives and regulation. This will enable the build-up of local supply chains.  The £3.9bn announced in the strategy will only reach a small fraction of the old, cold homes that must be made more energy-efficient.  Without this, retrofit cannot be delivered at scale, leaving more families having to choose between heating and eating.

An apprentice works on installing a heatpump on a home in Scotland. (Credit: Warmworks/Ashden)

Other incentives, such as a variable Stamp Duty Land Tax for more efficient homes, could help encourage demand for exciting new financial products that are emerging such as green mortgages.

Further regulation is also needed: for example, local authorities are crying out for reform of the planning system and building regulations so they can mandate installation of energy-efficiency measures, backed by adequate funding for building control officers.
We aren’t trying to tackle this from a standing start. Innovative schemes and initiatives across the country clearly show that this can be achieved at scale with the right resources.

For example, finalists for this year’s Ashden Awards include Carbon Co-op, working closely with Greater Manchester Combined Authority to help individuals and communities by providing end-to-end deep retrofit services, and training and retraining the builders needed. To date they have trained over 200 installers and are scaling up their work.

Companies like Kensa and Carbon Co-op show how we can bridge the gap between the sheer volume of work needed to hit the mark with the heating and housing green revolution – and so met our carbon targets while also enabling people to have exciting future careers in the sector. Now it needs the government to swing behind the skills agenda.

Harriet Lamb is the chief executive officer of Ashden, a climate solutions charity that accelerates transformative climate solutions to build a more just world. The annual Ashden Awards will be held at COP26 on 4 November.  

Main picture credit: Oval Renewables/Carbon Co-op



Committee on Climage Change  Heat and Buildings Strategy  green skills  heat pumps  GHG emissions  home insulation  clean energy transition  Kensa  Carbon Co-op  Ashden Awards 

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