Soaring demand for skilled workers is delaying deep retrofits under home energy scheme

Labour shortages and supply-chain problems leading to delays in retrofitting programme

Soaring demand for building contractors, skilled workers and materials are delaying deep retrofits under the Government’s home energy upgrade scheme.

The scheme offers homeowners close to half the cost (45-51 per cent) of a deep retrofit to improve a dwelling’s energy efficiency to a B2 rating – using a one-stop-shop service. More than five months since the scheme was announced, no deep retrofits have been completed by the one-stop shops.

About 1,000 deep retrofits will be completed by them by the end of the year, however, according to the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI). A total of 24 grants had been paid out up to the end of June for completed home energy assessments, while 222 home energy upgrades are in process, and 520 homeowners have applied for home energy assessments.

A total of 24,000 applications for grants across all its retrofit support programmes, more than were received in all of last year, had been received by the authority up to the end of June. Since January it has received 9,889 applications for grants under the individual measures scheme, and 7,844 for grants for solar panels.

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Grants of up 80 per cent are available for individual energy upgrades, for homeowners who are not looking to upgrade their homes in one go. Applications for attic and cavity wall insulation grants have almost tripled this year, with applications for heat pumps increasing by 80 per cent, and for external wall insulation by 40 per cent, according to a spokeswoman for the SEAI. To date, inflation does not appear to have dampened demand for the energy efficiency schemes. Research carried out for the SEAI showed retrofitting costs increased by 9 per cent between last October and April.

The cost of retrofitting a three-bedroom semidetached home — which requires all measures from wall insulation to the installation of an electric heat pump — would have been between €37,000 and €58,000 last year. Now the estimated cost is between €40,000 and €63,000. The SEAI offers grants covering up to €25,000 of the costs of a deep retrofit to a B2 energy rating, with an additional €2,000 available to those who install a heat pump.

Brian O’Mahony, head of national retrofit and communities at SEAI, said: “Overall we expect to have nearly 22,000 retrofits supported by year end, and of this just over 8,000 will be B2 or better” — many having been completed under the individual upgrade rather than deep retrofit grant schemes.

He said about a third of the target had now been reached “but the volume of completions typically rises across the summer ... so we expect completions to grow each month.”

About 1,200 contractors have been registered with the SEAI under the individual measures scheme, according to Ciaran Byrne, SEAI’s director of national retrofit, while the registration for one-stop shops is a slower process.

“We’re broadly on target. It’s going to be challenging. What we’re doing in terms of the one-stop shop is we’re building a new model so that we can really ramp it up as we go along.”

He added: “It’s very difficult to retrofit a retrofit, so we’ve been focusing a lot on the processes of the companies who are looking to register as one-stop shops. It’d be much easier to just open the process but we’re being very fastidious in registering the companies. It’s to do with protecting the homeowner in the long run.”

Homeowners may have to wait between “five and eight months” for a contractor to become available, according to Paddy Sweeney, managing director of Retrofit Energy Ireland Ltd, one of eight one-stop shops now registered with the SEAI.

He said more building energy rating (BER) assessors are needed. BER assessments are required both before and after deep retrofit works in order for grants to be paid. “The first port of call is the BER assessor,” Sweeney explained. “It’s the guiding document on what you need to do to get the grant. It’s a very in-depth survey. The assessor is in the house for a number of hours, and they’re a number of hours writing the document after that.”

“We’d have up to 60 BER assessors that we work with and there’s a couple of weeks’ wait for those.”

The demand for materials is also delaying projects, Sweeney added: “We’d be lucky to get windows in two months. There are also supply-chain issues with heat pumps, if you need a large batch you have to wait a while.”

He added: “External insulation is labour intensive and it takes about a month or two to have it lined up.”

SEAI’s O’Mahony said the authority is attracting new contractors at a rate of 50 to 60 per month as more homeowners want to avail of its grants and processes.

He added: “It’s now up to the supply chain to grow, it’s not something that they can turn around overnight. The contractors and installers are scaling up. All the indications are there.”

Under the one-stop-shop scheme, homeowners have 12 months to complete works from the time the grant is approved, while under the individual measures scheme a homeowner has eight months to complete the works.

O’Mahony said there have been no issues in terms of projects not meeting deadlines but if homeowners experience delays they can liaise with SEAI.

Stuart Hobbs, director of energy services Ireland at SSE Airtricity, another one-stop shop, attributed delays to the competing demands within the construction industry.

“We’ve got the housing crisis, an acceleration in new builds, and the climate action strategy, and both of those have accelerated at the exact same time.”

“With regards to labour, we would want to upgrade our capacity to meet demands. New apprenticeship training can be a four-year training scheme, so we’re not going to see the capacity upweighting from that for a while.”

He added: “We have regular ongoing dialogue with our partners. We’ve hired new project managers and survey teams. There are limitations with the solar teams and the insulation teams. We’re looking to partner with new education partners in terms of retrofits.”

The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications said the Government has taken measures to increase the required number of skilled workers from 4,000 to 17,000 by the middle of the decade. A spokesman said these include 4,550 retrofit and nearly zero energy buildings standard places this year as part of the Department of Further and Higher Education Green Skills action programme; it has three retrofit centres of excellence in operation with two more due to be in place by the end of the year; and it has been making supports available for employers to take on apprentices.

“The Government is confident that the higher grant levels, in tandem with the scaling up of the infrastructure to support a much larger level of retrofit activity, will deliver very positive results for consumers, the overall economy and society in general.”