Opinion: spending an extra 40 hours a week at home could significantly increase heating bills and dramatically intensify household emissions

Winter is just around the corner and domestic heating agenda has always been too hot to handle. Now, as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, we have entered into a completely new era of our working life. It is remarkable how quickly we have adapted and delivering the same quantity and quality of work from home which we would have delivered from our offices. Thanks to technology, this pandemic has made work from home both normal and acceptable. 

According to a recent S&P Global Market Intelligence Survey, around 67% of companies are expecting work from home policy to remain in place either permanently or for the long-term. The trend will be adapted by many companies and business in the post-pandemic world.

But working from home in Ireland, especially during winter, will be at a significant cost. Irish homes already use 7% more energy and emit 58% more CO2 than the average EU homes. Spending an extra 40 hours a week at home could significantly increase our home heating bills and dramatically intensify our household emission profiles. Do we really want this? 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today with Sarah McInerney, consumer journalist Siobhan Magure looks at current energy costs 

The International Energy Research Centre at the Tyndall National Institute recently published a report examining Ireland's domestic heating policy against four other countries with a temperate climate and found that a significantly higher proportion of people in Ireland struggle to keep their home warm compared to the Netherlands, France and Belgium. The share of the population at the risk of energy poverty in Ireland is also approximately 3% higher in comparison to the EU28 as a whole.

In Ireland, space heating accounts for more than 60% of domestic energy consumption and more than 90% of this is provided directly by fossil fuels. Unlike other countries with similar-climate, the dominant domestic heating fuel in Ireland is oil, which is both expensive and carbon intensive. 

Among EU countries, Ireland has the second lowest share of renewables in heating at only 6.7%. In terms of policy development, while renewable electricity has witnessed numerous measures and instruments to stimulate deployment, very few policy measures have targeted renewable heat.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's The Business, Ciaran and Stephen Devine from tech-based energy company Bright on how they set up a renewable energy power plant in Derry

There is a long way to go to make our homes sustainable for living (and now working). This is a pivotal moment for Ireland to adopt a robust, comprehensive and integrated set of policies to make the heating affordable for homeowners and sustainable for our environment. Here are five approaches to domestic heating policy for policemakers to consider for this hot issue:

We need a domestic heating action plan

Taking a technology neutral approach and gathering empirical evidence on a range of technologies is critical for our domestic heating agenda and long-term climate and energy vision. The Programme for Government already mentions introducing new requirements around heating system.

This can be achieved successfully if a detailed domestic heating decarbonisation action plan accompanying our National Energy & Climate Plan (NECP) and Climate Action Plan (CAP) could be developed to provide clear direction to key market players. As evident from Sweden, Austria, and Switzerland, we need to give significant consideration to sequence, coordination, combination, and stability of policies to build industry and consumer confidence as well as increasing the overall effectiveness of policies.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's News At One, George Lee assesses how much progress has been made by the Government on its Climate Action Plan

Local heating strategies

Several EU countries are adapting the localization of heating strategies. In France, local authorities have been made responsible for the public distribution of heating and cooling. Ireland must develop city or municipal level targets and strategies for domestic heating. The Climate Action Amendment Bill published in January 2020 already mandates local authorities to publish their Climate Action Plan. Local authorities must be empowered with the necessary resources to take on such role. Cross-sectoral cooperation and sector-coupling in local heating strategy also need to be encouraged through both financial and non-financial measures.

Give more support to low-income households

Ireland already had a higher level of energy poverty than other countries with temperate climate. As a result of Covid-19, it is expected that even more people will fall into either chronic or intermittent energy poverty. We need to ensure that low carbon technology deployment does not disproportionately affect these low income households. Homeowners living with energy poverty must be prioritized and incentivized to deploy sustainable heating solutions. Revenue collected from carbon taxes could be directly used to offset the new burdens on consumers and communities.

Fund more reseach and promotion 

Ireland must increase investment to support early stage research and speed up pilots for the significant use of biogas and hydrogen in the existing gas network and further address the technical, economic and regulatory barriers for proven technologies. Only 39% of households in Ireland are connected to the gas network compared to the Netherlands and the UK, where the connectivity is around 97% and 85% respectively.

Heating is fundamental to life and we need to ensure that it is accessible, affordable and sustainable for all

It is imperative that Ireland also explores standalone heating schemes or community level heating schemes backed by these new technologies. Intensive marketing, promotion and information campaigns through a range of channels and a range of actors need to be considered as it has been a transformative strategy in leading EU countries.

Have we got the people to work on these new programmes?

Ireland needs to build a strong skill base for the installation and maintenance of new low-carbon heating technologies. Quality assurance and certification schemes for technologies and technicians is a proven strategy to ensure a robust implementation of domestic heating programmes. There is also a significant lack of awareness of the benefits of digitalising heating systems, especially in terms of optimising operations and connecting stakeholders across the supply chain. Supportive training programmes, guidelines, policies, and a regulatory framework also need to be developed.

Crisis is always an opportunity and the timing is an essential dimension of the policy world. This is the time to focus on the policy agenda that is most crucial, and heat is the most valuable service in terms of health and well-being. Electricity can add greatly to quality of life, but heating is fundamental to life and we need to ensure that it is accessible, affordable and sustainable for all.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ