Good Advice is Essential

Good Advice is Essential

17th June 2024

New heat technologies mean cheaper bills and less pollution – but good advice is essential

by Matthew Lee, CAS Social Justice team.

This column was first published in the Herald on 1 June 2024.

Scotland is a cold country, with many homes that are energy inefficient, and poor energy efficiency is one of the main drivers of fuel poverty. The latest Scottish Government estimate is that a staggering 31% of Scottish households are in fuel poverty. In 2023/24, the Scottish CAB network provided over 24,000 pieces of advice on fuel vouchers and trust fund applications – a useful proxy for fuel poverty – which represented a 23% increase on the previous year.

Improving the energy efficiency of Scotland’s buildings will help to tackle fuel poverty and meet our Net Zero targets. But how do we go about making our homes more efficient and ultimately cheaper to heat? 

There are a number of options available, but heat pumps are rising to the top of that list. People who want to move to these new systems can often feel intimidated by the prospect of making such a change, but this is where access to free, impartial and good quality advice is essential. CABs can help identify funding streams to reduce the costs of installation and offer other support that can make the move easier. 

After doing the initial research, people who are ready to switch to a heat pump can contact local installers. It is worthwhile contacting multiple installers and getting quotes for the necessary work. Checking out reviews of the installers online may help ensure they are competent and trustworthy. Speaking to family, friends and neighbours might also help identify a good heat pump installer. Like any other home improvement, people might have an initial chat with installers by phone or email, followed by them visiting the property to get more detailed information. It is important to ask questions about the installation process and post-installation maintenance before agreeing to go ahead. Doing this due diligence early on reduces the chances of things going wrong further down the line. 

It would be disingenuous to suggest that installing a heat pump right now is cheap. However, funding is available, including Scottish Government grant and loan funding available through Home Energy Scotland. Through this scheme, homeowners can get a £7,500 grant and a further £7,500 interest-free loan to fund the cost of heat pump installation. People in rural areas can get an enhanced grant for £9,000 plus the interest-free loan, and similar interest-free loans are available for private rented sector landlords. It is important to remember that as heat pumps become more common across Scotland, the cost of installing them will fall. In the meantime, Citizens Advice Scotland is urging the Scottish Government to maintain or extend support for early adopters of heat pumps.

People making the switch to heat pumps should seek funding from trusted sources. They should be careful about companies making big promises regarding access to green funding. Over the past 12 months, there has been an 85% increase in people seeking advice from the CAB network about renewable and energy efficiency scams. If an offer seems too good to be true, it almost certainly is. Any legitimate firm will be able to answer questions and provide evidence about the claims they make. Government-backed schemes and reputable lenders offering green loans are safer port of call when looking for heat pump funding.

Heat pumps are not the only technology that can help reduced the carbon emissions from buildings. A one-size-fits-all approach to new heating systems will not work. An important way of making the move to net zero fair is to ensure that people adopt technologies that are suitable to their properties. A key question is whether a heat pump is right for a tenement flat. The way these properties have been built means the cost and disruption of retro-fitting them to make a heat pump worthwhile is prohibitive. 

Instead, tenements in densely populated areas could switch to a heat network, which supplies heat from a central point to all the buildings in the network. So, rather than having a gas boiler in their property, heat network customers have a heat interface unit that allows them to adjust the temperature (although boilers and heat interface units can look similar). A key difference of being on a heat network is that consumers can’t switch gas supplier as they would if they were on mains gas. The heat network market has minimal regulation currently, although the UK Government, the Scottish Government and the energy regulator Ofgem are moving towards introducing a tighter regulatory framework. 

The prospect of switching to a heat pump or heat network may feel daunting. But doing some initial legwork, seeking out robust advice and thinking carefully before committing to a specific installer will take much of the worry out of switching to this new technology. The benefits  for individual households include better energy efficiency, cheaper bills and more comfort homes. Society in general will benefit too from less fuel poverty and decreased carbon emissions. 

By giving people accurate and unbiased information, advice organisations like the CAB network can play a leading role in the transition to net zero. But it will be a challenging. There is already unprecedented demand for advice from our network. As we help people with today’s problems – not least increased bills and energy debt – we need to get ready to provide advice for emerging issues like moving to new heating technologies. Building that capacity requires proper funding and scaling up of our resources.