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Green Recovery Insights: Retrofitting holds the key to a genuinely green recovery

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As we move into Autumn of this challenging year, we have invited some key stakeholders in our network to share insights and practical advice on what a green recovery from COVID-19 looks like. The first in this series is shared by Simon Roberts OBE, the Chief Executive of the Centre for Sustainable Energy, one of the Partnership’s founding supporting members.  

There are some things that lockdown hasn’t changed. One of them is what needs to be done to Bristol’s buildings and heating systems to get the city to its target of net zero carbon emissions by 2030. We still need to replace every gas boiler with a net zero alternative and we still have to upgrade the energy performance of nearly every property in the city. All by 2030, from pretty much a standing start.

That’s a huge undertaking. But it’s one that represents a tremendous employment opportunity – not least because it is actually a host of small jobs on 165,000 individual properties. And it marks building retrofit out as a prime candidate for driving an inclusive green economy.

What lockdown – and its economic impact – has changed is that the government has actually started investing in this field, through the new Green Homes Grant Scheme. But making this spending work for Bristol in the long term requires purposeful local effort in the short term.

According to our evidence base for Bristol’s One City Climate Strategy, achieving this goal needs £3.2 billion of investment and generates 60,000 person years of work for a myriad of trades: builders, joiners, electricians, heat pump installers (a.k.a. retrained gas engineers), heat network design engineers, pipe layers, road diggers to name just a few. No other ‘green stimulus’ infrastructure investment creates as many jobs for every pound spent.

And it’s inclusive, too, with the jobs supported covering all levels, from the newly qualified to the skilled and experienced.

And because it’s actually 165,000 separate decisions about individual building projects, it has a distinct advantage over much other green stimulus infrastructure investments: it can start now, one building at a time, and grow from there. It doesn’t need all the money lined up and contracts signed before anything can begin. It’s about as ‘shovel ready’ as it gets.

The new Green Homes Grant Scheme gives generous grants to home-owners and landlords for green home energy upgrades undertaken between now and next March (see here for CSE’s latest updates). That really shifts the terms of the investment decision; if orchestrated well, with householders supported by good quality advice, it could drive significant growth in demand for the work to be done.

But if it’s local job creation and high quality building improvements we want, we also need to pay attention to the supply side in two quite specific ways.

First, we need to make sure that there are enough decent contractors and installers in the Bristol area who know their stuff about low carbon, green retrofit to meet this demand and grow with it. That’s one of the primary goals of CSE’s innovative Futureproof programme where we’ve been working with The Green Register to provide an extensive programme of training and on-site support to builders and installers keen to develop their low carbon retrofit skills.

Second, we need to make sure that enough decent contractors in the Bristol area have signed up for the required Trustmark accreditation, without which they can’t participate in the Green Homes Grant. But for many, why bother? Decent builders and heating engineers are likely to have full order books for several months – though with work that isn’t on the path to net zero – and will ask themselves if it’s worth the time and effort to sign up to a scheme that’s not yet confirmed to continue beyond end of March 2021 (fingers crossed for the autumn budget!). We’re also working on this accreditation challenge through Futureproof. But it will require a city-wide (or, better, West of England-wide) approach and additional resources to nurture and support enough contractors through the accreditation process and skills development.

Success requires marrying the blunt (though welcome) national Green Homes Grant Scheme with precise local interventions to support local sector development and seize the employment opportunities. There is still work to do to develop and resource these local interventions and we’re interested to hear from anyone across the Partnership who feels they can contribute. The prize is a genuinely green economic stimulus, driven by money the government is already spending, that puts Bristol firmly on the path the net zero.

What can you do?

To support a green recovery, please share this information about the Green Homes Grant Scheme with colleagues. And with many people continuing to work from home and likely to be needing more hours of heating this winter, it’s a welcome and timely stimulus to get the improvements done.

About the Author and Further Reading

Simon has been working on sustainable energy (and living in Bristol) since 1985 and, in spite of a training in classical music, has come to the view that organising to achieve net zero emissions is more like jazz than Mozart. The Centre for Sustainable Energy are one of the Partnership’s founding supporting members.

Energy, Blog, Green Recovery Insight
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