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Covid-19: Economic recovery cannot compromise our net zero goal

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Covid-19 can't compromise the net zero goal

Improving sustainability should be just as crucial as economic recovery in the wake of Covid-19. Here, Mark McManus, managing director at Stiebel Eltron, looks at why the built environment needs to take the lead in achieving net-zero carbon as part of the recovery and the heating technologies available to support this.

After a long four months, the UK is emerging from the coronavirus lockdown. Despite the rules being eased, there is no denying the impact of quarantine will have far-reaching implications on society – particularly the built environment.

While construction productivity has been impacted, the lockdown has, in many ways, had a positive impact on the climate. According to the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, carbon dioxide levels were 40% lower in April this year compared with the same time in 2019 as a result of reduced travel. 

But with shops, offices, outdoor attractions, pubs and restaurants reopening, and schools preparing to open in earnest from September, the ‘new normal’ could see emissions quickly return to previous years. Some predict that carbon emissions will even spike as industries battle to make up for lost time, meanwhile commuters are being encouraged to use cars over public transport and airlines are preparing for a surge in customers as travellers hope to flock abroad.

There’s undoubtedly a need for the UK to increase productivity after Covid-19, but this can’t be at the detriment to the planet. Businesses will have to do more to ensure that sustainability is accounted for in their day-to-day work. For the property sector, this will mean ensuring that sustainability in the development and use of buildings doesn’t fall off a cliff edge. 

Finding sustainable alternatives

Before Covid-19 took hold of the country, it seemed like the property industry was making strong headways in improving sustainability. Up and down the supply chain, businesses were working hard to ensure their products or services could be a part of a zero-carbon future, and the sustainability tide really seemed to be turning. 

Now, however, the property sector’s focus has understandably shifted. The industry not only needs to recover financially from the impact of lockdown, but it needs to make up for the number of housebuilding projects and developments that have been paused or cancelled. Making sure housebuilding targets are hit will be a priority for the sector and government. 

But to make sure the hard work that has been done over the last five years towards achieving net zero isn’t undone, developers will need to be smart in their approach to sustainability – making small changes that have large sustainability benefits. 

One of the simplest methods for developers to improve the energy efficiency of a housing scheme is through using electricity as its heating source, instead of gas. Electricity is increasingly being generated through renewable energy solutions and is a sustainable power source.  

When green energy is used with systems like heat pumps, for example, which convert environmental energy drawn from water, the ground, outdoor air or extract air, the system produces no carbon emissions. Heat pumps are also able to harvest heat when it’s up to -20 degrees outside, making them a highly sustainable solution.

As a water heating source, technologies like instantaneous hot water (IHW) systems are set to become a more and more popular solution for developers looking for energy efficient solutions. These have previously been viewed as difficult to install in the domestic market because of the UK’s 240-volt energy supply, which has been considered too low to support the requirements.

However, we’ve recently worked alongside SP Energy Networks at a residential scheme for developer Watkin Jones, where the supply was phased in an alternative way to provide 400 volts for the IHW units. Because this now proves that the units can be feasible in the UK market, we expect more developers will look to use the technology. 

Practically, IHW’s are also small, simple to install – a key benefit for developers looking to build quickly – and heat water only when needed, rather than storing water for later use as in traditional unvented water tanks. 

As we come out of the Covid-19 pandemic, the housebuilding industry will also see a fundamental shift in what residents want and expect from their new homes. Access to private land or a garden will become a priority, as will social infrastructure nearby. Inside the homes, additional space will be key. Many are even predicting that requirements for home office space will become the norm. Developers will therefore be under pressure to maximise the space and land they already own. Electrical heating can play an important role here.

Electric heating systems don’t require a boiler room, fuel store or tank. Meanwhile for electric water heating solutions like IHW’s, they are compact and mounted on internal walls. This is a huge space saver when compared to traditional water tanks, which can take up as much as 10% of space in an internal city centre flat. This is space that can accommodate a sizeable balcony or even an office. 

There is no denying the next 12 months will be an uphill struggle for the property sector as it battles to hit its housebuilding targets, but we mustn’t let sustainability fall off the list of priorities for future developments. The pandemic has provided us with a glimpse of what a net-zero carbon future will look like with the falling emissions, now let’s work even harder to achieve it.

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