Since the introduction of the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) scheme in 2010, there have been half a million installations of solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in UK homes – many of them in social housing [1]. A similar scheme, the domestic Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI), was introduced earlier this year. Whilst these UK Government subsidies are attractive, household renewables are becoming increasing popular in social housing because they can help achieve multiple aims: meet housing standards such as EESSH (Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing), reduce CO2 emissions, tackle fuel poverty, and increase the warmth and comfort in homes for tenants. Sounds fairly easy, everyone has a warm home and reduced energy bills, right?

Not quite. As more social housing renewable schemes are developed, so does our experience of how to implement a successful scheme: you need suitable housing stock, a strong business case, finance and knowledgeable installers. But one of the biggest factors vital for success is effective tenant engagement. It’s often talked about, so why does it still get knocked down the list of priorities? Well, perhaps it’s because it seems easy – we just need to hand out a few leaflets. Or perhaps it’s because we rarely see or hear about the impact of ineffective tenant engagement, unless tenants actively complain about systems. This issue is explored and well-illustrated through a recent Changeworks research project to explore the impacts of solar photovoltaics (PV) on social housing – a project funded by the eaga Charitable Trust. Here’s the summary case study.

Benefits of PV in social housing

Solar PV installations in social housing create two main benefits: the landlord receives the FIT income and the tenants receive free electricity. Quickly after the installation, the landlord will know the extent to which the first benefit has been realised because FIT payments are made on a quarterly basis. However, whether or not tenants have benefited is largely unknown; the landlord or tenant would need to monitor electricity bills, which is rarely done [2].

Our research shed light on this issue by measuring electricity bills in 42 social homes before and after PV installations [3]. First, the good news. Tenants saved an average of £90 per year after PV systems were installed – a reduction of 8% on the average annual energy bill. But the savings were less than installers had predicted. Whilst it’s commonly assumed that householders will use half of the electricity generated by PV panels, the tenants in this sample used less; on average, a third. So why was this?

Use it or lose it

Okay, back to basics. PV panels generate electricity from sunlight. This electricity is used in the home if there is an immediate demand for electricity at the time of generation, i.e. an electrical appliance is on. If there is no demand at the time, the electricity will be exported to the national grid because the electricity cannot be stored [4]. Electricity generated by the PV system is free for the tenant [5] to use but they see no benefit if it is exported. The PV system cannot meet all of the tenant’s electricity needs so they will also have to purchase electricity from the grid as normal. Ideally, the tenant should try to use as much of the free PV-generated electricity as possible and reduce the amount they need to purchase from the national grid at other times: this will maximise their electricity bill savings.

In practice, to maximise savings this means tenants need to use more electrical items in the daytime (when they’re generating electricity) and less in the evening or night time. For instance, tenants could put their washing machine on, cook a meal or charge their phone in the daytime rather than evening. Tenants also need to avoid using more than one major appliance at the same time in the day to avoid using more electricity than generated by the panel and having to draw the additional amount required from the grid. 

Build understanding to get savings

Our research highlighted that most tenants with PV systems had a very poor understanding of how it worked or how to get the most out of it. Of 122 social housing tenants [6], only 40% knew they should use electrical appliances during the daytime to get the most from PV systems. None of them appeared to know not to put large appliances on at the same time and why. Some were even more confused – for example, thinking that the PV system would provide all of their electricity needs or that it was heating gas for their central heating system.

Our findings go some way in explaining why tenants had only used a third of the electricity generated by the panels, rather than half. If they had a better understanding of how to use the PV systems they may have been able to use more electricity which could have pushed average savings from £90 to £140 a year. This is a substantial saving, especially over the panel’s minimum lifetime of 20 years! [7] Whilst savings are limited by tenants’ lifestyles (for example, a retired person has more opportunity to use electricity in the daytime compared to someone at work during the day), our sample had high daytime occupancy levels. Therefore, they are in a position to make good savings.

Create conversations with tenants

Information had been provided to the tenants about the PV systems − for example, using leaflets created by the landlord or installer − but clearly it was not effective in helping tenants to get the most out of their systems. Tenants comments involved in the research included: “I need to be told how it works. Booklet is too complicated.” and“Nobody said anything at fitting – just said: ‘That’s you!’’’.

To help increase tenants’ understanding, we created an short, easy-to-understand householder PV leaflet which was well received. We also trained local frontline housing staff to enable them to answer tenants’ questions and show them how to make savings.

Our research highlights that the benefits of renewables can be restricted by a lack of effective tenant engagement, guidance and support. In fact some of the tenants in the research hadn’t made any savings from their PV systems – a possible impact of a tenant perception that their PV system would provide all their electricity needs and thereforeincreasing overall electricity usage. From other research we’ve carried out at Changeworks [8], we’ve heard of systems having to be removed from buildings because the tenant didn’t understand how to use it and bills had gone up.

Despite thousands of PV systems being installed in social housing across the UK, without this research we would not have known that tenants weren’t able to realise the high benefits from PV because they didn’t understand how it works. Evaluation of schemes yields useful insights, as one housing association involved in the project put it:

“The project itself was useful for us to understand the real benefits of the solar PV panels. It was clear that some tenants were seeing the benefit and others less so.”

Pierre de FenceDirector of Knowes Housing Association

What help is out there?

We’ll provide further guidance on these issues through a Renewables Guide for housing associations we’ve written for The Scottish Federation Housing Association (SFHA), due to be published later this year. To find out when it’s published and for latest updates, follow us on Twitter. We also speak about our findings at events and we’ll be at the SFHA’s Property Repairs & Asset Management Conference on the 6 and 7 October. If you’ve installed PV systems, you can also read our free PV guide for social landlords to help your tenants get the most from PV.

So what can you do? If you’re installing or have already installed renewables, take tenant engagement seriously and learn from previous experience. Think about what information tenants need to know (and what they don’t!). Think about how you can best reach tenants with this information – using a range of tools, such as home visits, local champions, events and leaflets.

We’re not saying that tenant engagement or evaluating schemes is easy – it takes work to get right. And we fully appreciate that landlords are constrained by lack of resources and time. But what’s increasing clear is that unless we invest in tenant engagement, we’re not going to maximise benefits from renewables. In fact, there might not be any benefits. Most landlords tell us that the primary reason they install renewables is not to benefit from the Feed-in Tariffs (FITs) or meet housing standards: it’s to help tenants. If that’s the case, we need to make sure we do this.

Perhaps you have been involved in developing other useful resources and approaches, please let us know.

Feel free to contact me or the team discuss how we can help you to get the most from your renewable projects. Call the team on 0131 539 8576 or send us an email.

Tessa

Tessa Clark is Changeworks' Senior Consultant 

Endnotes

[1] Social housing is that let at low rents by housing associations, housing co-operatives and local authorities. Solar PV installation figures are from DECC, 2014

[2] If PV systems were installed with export meters which measure the amount of electricity sent to the grid, tenant savings could be easily monitored. However, they are rarely – if ever – fitted on domestic systems due to the cost of install.

[3] 122 homes were included in the research but sufficient and usable energy data could only be obtained for 72 households. A further 30 households were excluded because their results would distort the analysis; this is explained in the research report. The sample was drawn from five different social landlords.

[4] There are trials in place to get energy storage available for PV but it is not yet widely available

[5] ‘Tenant’ is used in this context for social housing but the findings are applicable to PV installed in private households.

[6] As outlined above, 122 social housing tenants were included in the research from five different social landlords. Research involved surveys and interviews with these tenants.

[7] The average systems in this research were sized at 2.4kWp which is smaller than the average on many private households. The potential for savings in large systems is greater.

[8] Consumer Focus (2012) 21st century heating in rural homes