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How New Building Rules Can Revitalize Residential Solar in England

Tighter rules on the carbon footprint of new homes in England look set to trigger a fresh boom for residential solar.

New homes will be expected to produce 31 percent less carbon dioxide than they do now, according to plans laid out this week, which will require better energy efficiency and being “heat pump ready.” In the vast majority of cases, it is expected that solar will be the most cost-effective way for housebuilders to stay below the carbon threshold.

The new rules are expected to pass into law in the spring of 2021, and likely to begin to be applied to new building plans starting in the spring of 2022. They are the pre-cursor to a much stricter set of regulations, the Future Homes Standard, to be implemented in 2025 that will cut permitted emissions by 80 percent.

The changes were overdue because of the strain the coronavirus pandemic has placed on government resources. Fears that the existing rules would remain in place until the Future Homes Standard was proved unfounded.

Building regulations in the U.K. are decided by each of the home nations, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

In 2015, England abandoned plans for a Net Zero Homes standard that would have required houses to generate as much renewable energy as they used and where not possible, developers would make up the shortfall off-site. At around the same time, authorities in Scotland tightened its rules making new homes 22 percent lower-carbon than the equivalent in England.

After four years of the new rules, and with no government support or feed-in tariffs on offer for residential solar, 80 percent of new homes in Scotland featured solar.

“What we’ve seen is, it became a mainstream technology as far as the homebuilding sector and Scotland is concerned,” said Chris Hewitt, chief executive of Solar Energy UK, the country’s solar trade body.

If the same uptake is experienced in England, more than 200,000 new solar homes could be on the grid every year. The latest data on solar deployment runs to the end of November 2020. There were 978,751 installs under 4kW in size across the whole U.K. Of those, just 24,000 were added in 2020 and the majority will have been on new Scottish homes. The new regulations could essentially increase installation volumes tenfold.

Solar to become the norm for new homes

The Scottish rules are far from perfect. CO2 limits are applied across an entire development, not on a house by house basis. That means some homes have enough panels for an average family’s usage, some might have none, and others have frustratingly small systems. Lonely looking pairs of panels set on a huge roof area are not uncommon.

The new rules in England will be house-by-house. At the same time, the ‘low carbon heating ready’ condition means already savvier buyers will have one eye on a heat pump. That might encourage homebuilders to go beyond the minimum required sizes and build more valuable-sized arrays.

Hewitt said the entire “solar smart home” concept, including batteries, EV charging and electrified heat, could play its part in larger solar arrays becoming mainstreamed.

“I think electric vehicles will probably be more of the driving force [for] customers who are looking at a new build property,” he said.

Viridian Solar is a U.K. manufacturer of roof-integrated solar panels. Sinking the panels so that they are flush to the roof surface has become practically standard for new builds, CEO Stuart Elmes said. The company works directly with a number of major U.K. housebuilders.

Elmes expects property developers to think differently about how they apply solar as consumer trends change.

“Everyone will expect that new houses come with solar,” he said in an interview. “The whole smart energy, electric vehicle, electric mobility, all of that, or have moved on another, another five years.”

There have been concerns that limits set by the Future Homes Standard could be met by the installation of a heat pump alone, meaning that they wouldn’t have to specify solar on that property.

Elmes now believes that it’s more likely that consumers will look for the whole package, along with the lower carbon, lower-cost heating and power that results.

Residential PV sector to ratchet back up

The end of the feed-in tariff saw swathes of installers exit the sector. A survey by the Renewable Energy Consumer Code, conducted as the subsidy cuts were announced, found that 88 percent of installers planned to shed jobs, restructure their business or exit the sector entirely. Now U.K. residential solar faces the prospect of a resurgence for residential solar. 

Generous feed-in tariffs triggered a boom in retrofit PV installs in the UK. The tariff fell in large increments creating boom and bust cycles either side of a change. This time, things will likely be very different.

Elmes expects this fresh rollout to be a more stable and professional endeavor given that it will favor larger contractors. The feed-in-tariff boom attracted a patchwork of local installers, not all of whom met expectations during the sales and installation processes.  

“They’re very different beasts, [compared to] to the companies that operate in the construction industry,” he said. He expects larger solar installers in the country and other construction contractors to meet the demand. One Scottish roofing contractor, Forster Group, has done a particularly good job of pivoting to solar.

One fear touted around the time that the Net Zero Home regulation was shelved, was that if costs rose for housebuilders, they’d build less and put the Government’s homebuilding targets at risk.

“House building didn’t fall off a cliff because Scotland went to higher energy regulations,” said Elmes. “Scotland went well ahead of the rest of the U.K. and didn’t affect house building at all.”

Source: Greentech Media