HOUSING associations have welcomed a project to turn thousands of properties into mini-power stations, but the private sector warned of a “huge number of complex issues” involved in decarbonising homes.
Last Thursday, council leaders from the Swansea Bay City Region approved a £505 million initiative to build or retrofit more than 10,000 properties featuring green technology like solar panels, heat pumps and Tesla batteries.
These properties would have thick cladding and insulation, virtually no carbon footprint and very low running costs.
The idea is that the concept is proved within the public sector and then rolled out to housing associations and the private housebuilding sector, creating jobs and supply chains in the process.
Council leaders were told that the involvement of the private sector would be important.
In response to questions from the Local Democracy Reporter Service, a spokesman for the Home Builders Federation said new homes in Wales were already considerably more energy efficient than their predecessors.
He said the industry was “absolutely committed” to going further, and was working with everyone concerned to deliver “the extremely challenging Government environmental targets”.
He added: “There are a huge number of complex issues involved in de-carbonising new homes, not least ensuring technologies are proven, have a sustainable supply chain and are acceptable to consumers.”
The spokesman said progress had to be deliverable to ensure housing supply was maintained but welcomed the focus on retrofitting older homes where, he said, greater carbon savings could be made.
Small-scale homes as power stations projects have taken place or are in the pipeline in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire but costs can be high and Welsh Government grants are necessary.
The hope is that costs come down and a skilled workforce develops.
A report by the Welsh Government last summer said a third of properties in Wales were built before 1919, when there were no standards on thermal efficiency. Fuel poverty, it said, remained a stubborn issue.
It recommended that ministers commit to a 30-year residential decarbonisation programme, and ensure all new homes should be low-carbon no later than 2025 – or 2021 for homes built with public sector funding.
The independent review said homeowners and landlords, who together own 84% of Wales’s properties, had to be encouraged to get on board.
It said: “For homeowners and private landlords to change their behaviours, it will be necessary for energy advisers, manufacturers, builders, builders’ merchants, financial institutions, local authorities and others to change theirs as well.”
Housing Association body Community Housing Cymru said its members were committed to building and retrofitting existing homes to be energy-efficient and low carbon.
Asked what the barriers were, a spokeswoman for the group said: “We are working to understand the costing of building energy efficient homes.
“The cost will be dependent on a number of factors including size, type, and geographic location.”
Getting access to homes to retrofit them, she said, could also be a challenge.
In the private rental sector in Wales, all houses and flats have had to meet a specific energy performance rating as of April 1 this year.
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said councils were responsible for ensuring this happens.
And prospective tenants have to be provided with the relevant energy performance certificate before entering into a tenancy agreement.
Swansea-based Coastal Housing Group commissions new developments for sale and rent.
It has built six south-facing, timber-frame and essentially airtight houses in Ammanford, Carmarthenshire.
The group’s development director, Gareth Davies, said this approach was another way of achieving a low-carbon outcome.
It is stepping up this model with a high-tech estate on land in Penyrheol, Swansea, with fellow housing association Pobl Group.
The 144 properties will have solar panels, air-source heat pumps, battery storage and electric vehicle charging points.
Planning consent has been granted and the scheme – more zero-carbon than low-carbon – has £10 million backing from the Welsh Government.
Mr Davies said: “The homes as power stations project is certainly of interest to us.”
“The difference between homes as power stations and the Ammanford project is that batteries are included.”
Batteries enable houses to store and release electricity when the occupier needs it, but they aren’t cheap.
Mr Davies said the costs of building a highly energy-efficient property varied, but estimated it was 20% to 30% more expensive.
He said: “The economies of scale don’t yet exist in the supply chain.”
Looking at the housing market more generally, Mr Davies said he felt didn’t feel buyers were quite ready to fully go green.
“Otherwise house builders would be doing it,” he said.
But he reckoned this could change.
“Either they (house builders) are going to be legislated to do it, or the market will shift,” said Mr Davies.
“Younger buyers will be more acutely aware of environmental concerns.
“And ultimately it’s low running costs.”
The homes as power stations project has a five-year delivery timetable.
Although approved at a regional level, it still needs final sign-off from the Welsh and UK Governments.