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Fuel Poverty in Northern Ireland: An Interview with Robert Clements, Sustainable Development Manager at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).

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Fuel Poverty in Northern Ireland: An Interview with Robert Clements, Sustainable Development Manager at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE).

We joined Robert Clements, Sustainable Development Manager at the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE), to ask him questions about his role within the NIHE. Speaking about the future of sustainability in housing, Robert gives us an insight into the prevalent issue of fuel poverty that households across Northern Ireland are facing, alongside the NIHE's latest sustainability initiative, HANDIHEAT.  

Q1) Could you share with us a little about your background and what inspired you to get involved with the Northern Ireland Housing Executive?

I completed my degree at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown in the 1990s, before joining Graham Construction as a Site Engineer, where I worked for 3 years on projects, including the construction of the Cross-Harbour Bridge (M3) and the refurbishment of the Europa Hotel. In 1996 I took up a position in the Housing Executive’s Private Grants Department; before moving to a small housing association, where I worked my way up to Technical Manager and was accountable for planned and response maintenance. Five years ago, I re-joined the Housing Executive as Senior Technical Officer working on energy efficiency projects. In 2016 I was appointed Sustainable Development Manager, responsible for Environmental Management and the Housing Executive’s role as Home Energy Conservation Authority.

The Home Energy Conservation Authority role is a statutory function which includes reporting on and promoting energy efficiency, as well as supporting energy efficiency innovation. We do this by supporting initiatives. The majority of renewable initiatives in Northern Ireland over the past twenty years have come through the Housing Executive’s Sustainable Development Unit. For example, we helped with the instalment of the first solar photovoltaic (PV) scheme in a block of flats in East Belfast. In 2017 we installed solar PV systems in over 1,000 Housing Executive homes across Northern Ireland. This initiative has helped families to save an estimated £150 a year, equating to around £150,000 in annual energy savings. In addition, we also manage a network of oil buying clubs, an energy efficiency initiative which aims to contribute towards the reduction of fuel poverty in Northern Ireland. We now have over 5,000 households on our oil buying network in receipt of monthly oil buys, which are 7% cheaper than the average annual price. This has allowed us to help save c. £120,000 for those 5,000 families on an annual basis.

Q2) The Northern Ireland Housing Executive was recently awarded £2m to fund research into the 'HANDIHEAT' project. What are your hopes for the initiative and how do you think it will positively impact the people of Northern Ireland?

The HANDIHEAT project is a European Interreg funded project through the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme. Initially, it was a challenge trying to understand the EU funding process – however, with support from Action Renewables, we submitted a successful project application. We would like to record particular thanks to Terry Waugh and Mark Compston for their support with the application.

The project’s focus is centred on the ambitions and role of the Housing Executive as Home Energy Conservation Authority, with an aim to review the issues of fuel poverty and health and wellbeing across the five partnering countries – Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Finland and Iceland. We are also aiming to review existing good practice across these five countries and the nine Northern periphery and Arctic countries, covering a significant portion of Northern Europe.

Furthermore, we are hoping to launch two pilot schemes - one based in Fermanagh, and the other in Finland. The pilot in Finland will look at bio-gas and the potential use of micro-grids in rural areas. The scheme in Fermanagh will investigate the issue of high oil dependency in the county and seek to find practical solutions to support households. We will adopt a ‘fabric first’ approach, starting with insulation, to ensure that the houses have a good external envelope. We will also consider potential solutions through refurbishment, including hybrid boilers, and how thermal and battery storage can be of benefit in this context.

Overall, at the core of this project, we are attempting to find a low carbon sustainable heating system – hence the name HANDIHEAT. We hope to find energy efficient solutions which will be suitable for rural areas that are currently off-the-grid network. Hopefully, through consideration of policy change and pilot schemes, we will gain an understanding of what works and can try to find a solution that will benefit and represent a ‘best fit’ for all the nine partnering countries.

Q3) Can you give us an example of a sustainability strategy that you have been involved in that you are most proud of?

Our strategy for the Sustainable Development Unit is presently being reviewed. Our vision is to encompass the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations – how we currently integrate with these goals and how we can improve our contribution to meetings these goals in the future. Our Home Energy Conservation Authority role has three pillars – we report energy efficiency, support energy efficiency through innovative solutions and promote energy efficiency awareness. Three years ago, we published an energy efficiency refurbishment guide for low-rise dwellings, which essentially highlighted a value for money option for introducing energy efficiency solutions into housing. This is something of which we are particularly proud, and we will be using it to inform our strategies going forward in relation to both the HANDIHEAT project and subsequent pilot schemes. More recently, our oil buying club and the solar PV installation project (in over 1,000 homes) are two initiatives of which we are also extremely proud. Looking to the future, I hope we will be able to say we are proud of the results we achieve with our HANDIHEAT project.

Q4) Looking to the future, where do you think the biggest sustainability challenges lie for the NIHE, and how do you think Brexit might influence them?

The biggest challenges surround the global issue of climate change. The ‘bigger picture challenges’ should concern us all. The question we should be asking is: “are we destroying the planet at such a rate that the younger generations will pay the cost, just for us to continue to have it so good?”. I hope that the combination of emerging pressure coming from young people and the activities of countries which are declaring climate change emergencies will help to influence the policy change that is much needed on a global stage. Climate change is a fact – and, while some people still deny it, maybe policy change across the world will help to improve the global situation.

At a national level, considering the UK and their recent climate change indicator report, the appetite for change is promising. The UK ranked fifth in the world for being the most conscientious country in terms of delivering on climate change. Whilst this demonstrates a level of understanding, there is always room for improvement. At a local level, we currently have no active government in Northern Ireland. The challenge is not only fuel poverty and energy efficiency, but also our high dependency on oil. Out of all the jurisdictions in the UK, we have 68% of the population using oil as their main fuel source, compared to 4% usage across the rest of the UK.

The UK Clean Growth Strategy considers the removal of oil as a fuel entirely – this would have a profound effect in Northern Ireland, as we only have approximately 209,000 homes on gas. I think that we should be currently looking to exploit that existing gas network, while investigating low carbon solutions. We need to find other solutions to counteract our high dependency on oil, especially in rural areas. This brings me to our current project HANDIHEAT. I feel that this challenge should be tackled through the introduction of hybrid solutions in the short to medium term. Long-term, I do not think we will be seeing any more fossil fuel usage. The direction of travel overall is, thankfully, heading towards low carbon sustainable solutions, which may also involve the electrification of heat. However, this will raise other questions around cost – another challenge we will face in the long-term.

Q5) Northern Ireland has an overdependence on one unregulated fuel - oil. How realistic is it to expect notable changes in Northern Ireland in moving away from oil, towards low carbon emissions by 2030 - in line with global carbon emissions targets? 

Overall, I do not think the status quo can continue in terms of fuel usage in Northern Ireland. There is no longer any long-term future in oil, although I do recognise that reducing oil usage will not be a simple process. The first step will be to develop viable alternatives, including hybrid solutions. Therefore, I would support the introduction of a hybrid solution in the short to medium term. For instance, if we take the homes across Northern Ireland which are currently reliant on oil and introduce a hybrid solution, oil usage could be cut significantly, and this would still represent a major improvement.

First and foremost, however, we need to continue to insulate homes across Northern Ireland. The most expensive unit of energy is the one which is lost through homeowner’s windows and/or walls. Essentially, all of our approaches must begin with ‘fabric first’ – only then is it worthwhile looking at heating solutions which are both renewable and sustainable.

With regard to fuel poverty rates, Northern Ireland compares similarly with the rest of the UK, according to the latest Housing Conditions Survey. Fuel poverty is affected by three issues – household energy efficiency, energy prices and income. As energy efficiency and fuel prices in Northern Ireland are comparable with the rest of the UK, our main issue is our relatively low wage economy.

Are there going to be changes in Northern Ireland before 2030? Yes, absolutely. I do feel that such changes will be driven by the UK Government, as the UK is currently one of the more engaged countries in terms of climate change policy. It should be stressed that the Department for Environment and Department for Communities are both working extremely hard to deliver new draft strategies for a future administration in Northern Ireland.

Overall, a key factor influencing change is customer behaviour and demand. In the same way consumers want iPhones, Amazon, Netflix etc, they will also start to demand more sustainable and climate friendly methods to live, which will impact on the nature of housing in the future.  

If you are interested in finding out more about this area, we invite you to join us at our upcoming Action Renewables Energy Association (AREA) event: 'Renewable Solutions: Residential and Commercial Construction.', taking place on the 6th June 2019. Find out more by clicking the button below. 

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Dearbhla Boyle

Dearbhla Boyle
Events and Marketing Assistant


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