Scottish Housing Day (Part 2) – The realities of trying to improve home energy efficiency in our remote rural and island communities

This year, Scottish Housing Day is focused on the role of housing in the climate emergency. We have released two blogs on this theme. You can read our first Scottish Housing Day blog here.

Our homes are responsible for 13% of Scotland’s emissions which means, in order to meet our ambitious net-zero targets, we need to make big changes to the energy efficiency of our homes. This can be especially challenging in remote rural and island areas. We spoke to one island homeowner about the problems she encountered when she tried to update her heating system to a more energy efficient, affordable option.

Why did you want to change your heating system?

I chose to switch to an air source heat pump after desperately needing to upgrade the heating system in the house I moved into three years ago. This was a wet electric central heating system, backed up by a large wood burning stove which also, theoretically, fed the central heating system but it was highly ineffective and expensive to run. It was a struggle to keep the house at a reasonable temperature and the bedroom was regularly 14 to 16 degrees in the winter.

The switch to a low carbon heating system made sense in terms of my desire to live more sustainably, but also made logistical sense. Using an air source heat pump meant that we weren’t reliant on oil deliveries, which are costly and difficult to get delivered to the island. Whilst we do have woodland on the island, most of our wood fuel is imported from the neighbouring island and again comes with additional ferry costs. As I was working on energy projects at the time, I knew a little about how air source heat pumps work and I was keen to use the technology to heat my home.

Were you able to access home energy efficiency funding or support for this change?

My attempt to try and get a low carbon solution to my heating problem started by contacting one of the agencies whose remit is to support homeowners in this area. Whereas, if I had been on the mainland, this would have resulted in a house visit, the only engagement I had with the agency was over the phone. 

This made it more challenging to provide the information required for the report as there were many questions about the materials used to build the house and the levels of insulation that I was not confident in answering, whereas a trained advisor would have been able to tell more by being in the property.

I was able to secure an interest free government loan for the installation of the heat pump, however this did not cover the full cost of the installation, which was higher because of the additional costs associated with work on islands.

What barriers did you face when you tried to make this change in your home?

Accessing services on an island is not always easy. Understandably, with only a couple of hundred people, we cannot provide all the specialist services we need, even if training is available. It was a struggle to find a contractor who was on the approved list for the government scheme and willing and able to quote for an installation for my home. 

Despite working in community energy at the time, I found the process a challenge. It took several months to get someone to come out and give a quote which, at £25,000, was twice as much as you would expect to pay for a similar property on the mainland. A second contractor came out and surveyed, but never submitted a quote.

Eventually, after contacting 26 different approved installers, I managed to have a survey completed and signed up for the installation. As with most things on the islands, this did cost slightly more than it would on the mainland, but nowhere near the original quote. The issues did not end there though, with additional complications due to ferries and bad weather which delayed installation by six months. 

Ultimately, it took more than 18 months and a huge amount of time and effort, from first inquiring about an installation, to having a heat pump up and running. It was such a challenge that I actually considered a quick fix of an oil boiler partway through the second winter, when my mental health was suffering due to the cold, the cost of the heating, and the ongoing battle to get it sorted.

Whilst the government mandated advice agencies were good and I understand the need for quality assurance, it is clear that the process is designed for urban areas and is not fit for purpose for our remote rural and island areas. From the fact that the initial consultation on energy advice was over the phone rather than face-to-face; to the need to find several thousand pounds to pay for the additional costs of installation on an island, over and above the interest free loan offered by the government; to the challenges with finding an accredited installer who was willing to provide what we needed at a reasonable cost, the process was far too difficult. I can understand why uptake of well intentioned initiatives to improve energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty are lower in our remote rural and island communities than they are in urban areas.

I cannot fault the installers for not wanting the additional costs, nor the hassle of installation in these kinds of areas, but legislation and government spending needs to take into account the context of both the economic system and the geographic challenges we face when designing initiatives to promote energy efficiency, if they truly wish to call them nationwide initiatives.

How do you think things could be improved so that rural households can switch more easily to a low-carbon alternative heat source?

The challenges I faced in trying to improve the energy efficiency and liveability of my home go some way to explain the lack of engagement with successive government backed initiatives to improve energy efficiency in our homes, by those who live in remote rural and island locations. Out here, we are used to something being billed as a ‘national’ initiative without thought being given to how it will be delivered to areas like ours. 

This means that many people no longer pay attention to programmes designed to improve their homes, unless someone turns up on the island and talks directly to them about how it would work in a place like this. We should not underestimate the need to improve engagement with communities who have felt disenfranchised by successive ‘national’ campaigns which barely reach their shores.

In order to obtain financial support to carry out improvement measures, you are generally required to use an accredited installer. Training local people is often mooted as the answer for the lack of accredited installers in rural and island communities. However, many of our islands have very low unemployment and tradespeople who already have high demand, meaning there is often neither the people to train nor the commercial motivation to seek accreditation in order to deliver a government approved programme of works.

Two alternative methods could be considered for delivering similar programmes in our remote rural and island areas. One could be to create a roving specialised team, tasked with travelling around the harder to reach areas in Scotland, to first engage with people and encourage uptake of the scheme, then to carry out the necessary surveying, followed by the installation work, and continuing an annual round of maintenance for installations which require it. The second option would be to allow unaccredited tradespeople in hard to reach areas to install the equipment required, and have an accredited inspector travelling to these areas to sign off on installations.

Interview conducted September 2021.