Avonside Renewables are delighted to have served as the contractor for a ground-breaking project for social housing provider, Together Housing, after securing the work through competitive tender, where technical specification and quality were the primary objectives.
The pioneering project entailed piloting a solar PV and battery storage system across 250 Together Housing homes in Nelson and Colne in Lancashire – a scheme which Etienne highlighted was the largest awarded deployment of solar and storage in the UK, at the time, for a social housing provider. Now, early results indicate that renewable energy and social housing can work harmoniously together.
Converting England’s homes to renewable energy sources will be key to the UK meeting the target of becoming a net zero country by 2050. While everyone agreed that countries need to decarbonise their housing stock, housing providers need to feel confident that the transition will be sustainable both for their tenants and their finances.
Northern housing association, Together Housing, which is a not-for-profit that operates over 37,000 homes across Yorkshire and Lancashire, has led the way with a scheme that has the potential to revolutionise the sector’s relationship with renewable energy. Together Housing’s £2 million project was jointly funded by the Housing Association and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).
The three-year project has seen Together Housing install solar PV (panel) systems on 250 of its homes in the towns of Colne and Nelson in Pendle, Lancashire. These solar panels are complemented by on-site battery storage units, which fill with solar energy during the day, allowing power to be stored and used whenever needed. Down the line, the technology offers Together Housing the possibility of selling excess energy generated by the systems back to energy suppliers and getting involved in energy markets. Together Housing are hopeful that the project will show how investing in clean energy can help reduce the carbon footprint of their homes, save their tenants money on bills and produce a health commercial return.
Robin Jones, renewable energy project officer for Together Housing’s carbon reduction team, Together Energy, has been working on the project full-time, along with Together Energy’s managing director Patrick Berry. Robin agreed that there are many potential benefits to the project.
“You’ve got a lot of financial benefits obviously, not just getting a return on an investment and from the initiative itself,” he said. “If a tenant’s energy bills are lower, they’re more likely to be able to pay their rent. If you’ve got a house with solar panels on it, that is going to cost less money; it may make it more desirable compared to another one if [we’re] trying to rent it out… There’s lots of different factors.”
Etienne seconded Robin’s comments, outlining the numerous benefits of the renewable energy and social housing sectors working together: “Solar and storage systems offer social housing providers with the means to improve the SAP ratings of their properties, reduce their CO2 emissions and generate a revenue to re-invest into maintenance, improvements and upgrades. Meanwhile, they also offer tenants greatly needed reductions on their energy bills, thus combating fuel poverty.”
The deal Together Housing offered to tenants was simple: in return for free installation of the system and free electricity, tenants would have a device fitted to their homes which captures data remotely to help assess the pilot’s feasibility. In the end, 250 homes agreed to take part in the pilot, around 170 of them in Colne and the rest in Nelson.
Together Housing began installing the systems on tenants’ homes in July last year, a few months behind schedule due to teething issues. Installation was completed by the end of December 2019. The project covered a variety of different property types, with installations largely split between one-bed bungalows and three-bedroom houses alongside a sprinkling of two-bedroom properties.
The systems require almost no maintenance, revealed Etienne, with the works inside the property being able to be carried out in less than 1 day internally (assuming there were no problems, such as furniture obstructing the way and having to change the loft hatch), creating very little disruption to tenants. “The greatest disruption to tenants was the scaffold but this was typically up between 3-5 working day,” Etienne added, emphasising that finding the most convenient solution for tenants was always top of Avonside Renewables’ agenda.
There was a positive initial uptake of the project with around 90% of tenants agreeing to take part. Some tenants weren’t convinced at first as they chose to opt out of Together Housing’s offer, preferring to avoid the hassle they thought it might cause them. The delay in rolling installations out also led to doubt during the winter as residents struggled to see the returns they were expecting from the scheme in the cold, dark months of November and December.
“Tenants were initially very sceptical about the savings that could be made,” Etienne admitted.
However, as the months wore on, Together Housing’s tenants were soon persuaded. This was helped by active consultation as Robin and his team visited tenants in their homes alongside Avonside Renewables, taking the time to educate residents about the scheme and explain the energy savings they could make. Etienne confirmed that within the tender, Avonside Renewables were required to carry out a visit to explain the benefits of the system and the process of installation:
“Our Tenant Liaison Officer attended [the residents’ homes] with Robin and allowed us to gain an understanding of each tenant’s personal situations, ensuring we were prepared to adapt our working approach to suit their needs. For example, we had some tenants living with mental health conditions, which we made sure to approach sensitively and, where needed, we had our Tenant Liaison Officer sit with them during the installation to alleviate any anxiety issues.”
Of the project’s reception Robin reported: “Overall, it’s been very, very positive. We’ve had tenants who’ve stopped us while we’ve been in local shops telling us how it’s cost them five pence for a wash and when they’ve done it in the middle of the day it’s not cost anything.”
Indeed, Etienne agreed that within the first few days of having completed the first installs, himself and colleagues received reports of very little or even zero electricity being purchased from the National Grid. In fact, as time passed tenants saw continued savings in the evenings, thanks to the energy storage element of the systems, contributing huge overall savings to all participants, according to Etienne.
Robin concluded: “There’s a lot of interest out there – a lot of scepticism as well – but I think once you talk to people about it and explain things through, it makes a big difference.”
Together Housing anticipated that the project would save the tenants 60% on their electricity bills, amounting to up to £300 a year per home. According to Robin the initial savings made from the project are positive, averaging around £30 for a bungalow and £50 for a house in the first three months of 2020, while one tenant reported saving £95.
While these savings may seem small, for social housing tenants living on low incomes, every penny really does matter.
It’s clear, then, that the numbers that Robin highlighted are making a material difference to tenants’ economic wellbeing, even if – as he explained – there are differences between individual households.
“The big three-bed houses with lots of people in…They’re maximising the use of the energy from the systems even where it’s not providing them everything, and it’s still helping people in bungalows because their bill will be going down to next to nothing. It’s either massively reducing [the bill] or it’s almost completely covering [it]…Obviously there’s a big difference between a bungalow with a little old lady in it and a three-bed house with a family full of kids on various games consoles!” Robin joked.
Together Housing’s report of the project’s first two quarters also offers cause for optimism. It found that by the end of June 2020, tenants involved in the project consumed a total of 196.778 kilowatt hours (KWh) of solar energy.
When compared to average electricity prices for the North West, this equates to £31,878 of direct savings to tenants by the end of June alone, with total savings in all of 2020 projected to hit £63,253. Given that the project’s first two quarters fell from winter to spring, the bright summer months we’ve enjoyed should see Together Housing get close to that projection.
Together Housing’s long-term goal is to roll the project out to 20,000 of its 37,000+ properties if it proves to be successful. This would help it save an estimated 16,900 metric tonnes of carbon per year: a huge reduction to its carbon footprint. While COVID-19 has hit Together Housing hard, like all housing associations, Robin believed the project could help spur its recovery and meet the challenge to build back better.
“Although we’ve just had this pandemic happen which has obviously cost the company a lot of money, we are looking at ways to bounce back from that. This could be one of those ways,” he explained. “People are thinking more about the environment as part of this. A lot of people are thinking we need to come of out this the right way…I think this ties in very nicely with that.”
Together Housing is not just dabbling with renewable energy, according to Robin, but embracing it “from all angles” to move towards the low-carbon economy we now need to see. Robin shared his hope that Together Housing’s project will inspire other social landlords to repeat and develop its model once they see the benefits it can bring.
“The way that we’re approaching it is that [renewable energy] is going to be the future,” Robin enthused. “We do need to move towards it as quickly as we can, and we need to be doing that at scale. There is no good just having one or two [projects] here and there. You’ve got to go in hard!”
It’s hard not to be convinced by his passion for renewable energy and his belief in the difference it can make to people’s lives. While it’s still early yet, Together Housing’s forward-thinking project hints that renewable energy and social housing really can work together in harmony and it’s a relationship that Avonside Renewables is also keen to help progress.