Homeowners and energy workers left in lurch as retrofit funding runs out

Published by Niall Sargent on

August 15th, 2019

Hundreds of homeowners and industry workers have been left in the lurch after it emerged that funding for the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland deep retrofit scheme has run out ahead of schedule.

A central plank of the State’s new climate plan is an ambitious objective to retrofit 500,000 homes to a Building Energy Rating (BER) of B2 by 2030. 

More than 80 per cent of homes currently have a rating of C or lower and the building sector accounts for 10 per cent of all national emissions.

To date, efforts to drive demand for energy efficiency upgrades has come through grant schemes funded by the Government and administered by the SEAI. Total funding in 2019 for such schemes – including the pilot retrofit programme – was €85 million.

The three-year retrofit scheme launched in 2017 offering grants of up to €60,000 for deep retrofits up to an ‘A’ energy rating and was to run until the end of this year. The programme was heavily advertised right up to the local and European elections in May.  

However, it emerged this week that the scheme ran out of money as early as March. In a statement, the SEAI said that the scheme closed for applications on 19 July 2019 with funding fully committed to 55 projects covering 350 homes.

A total of 54 projects covering 320 homes were not approved prior to yesterday’s announcement, with these applicants told by the SEAI not to commence works until confirmation that funding has been approved for the project in question.  

Households who put in applications through energy contractors as required under the scheme are likely to have invested a minimum of €2,500 on expert help, energy rating and air tightness tests, and energy plans.

“Any applications that have not yet received a letter of offer will be held on hold, pending an evaluation of the pilot next year”, the agency said in a statement to The Green News. The review will be carried out together with the Department for Climate Action (DCCAE).

Left in limbo

The Tipperary Energy Agency (TEA) said yesterdaythat it is very disappointed by the decision and the reality that we are unlikely to see a new retrofit scheme until 2021 following the joint SEAI-DCCAE evaluation.

The delay of another 18 months for the long term deep retrofit scheme, the TEA said, will result in SMEs, contractors and homeowners losing faith in this industry and mass redeployment of skills away from retrofitting.

“It has taken three years to get to a point where approximately 1,000 homes per annum are retrofitted [and] it will take longer to rebuild the confidence in householders and contractors alike. We simply do not have the time for this delay,” the agency warned.

The TEA, which has provided deep retrofitting in over 200 homes through either the better energy communities or deep retrofit programs, said that funding issues was not communicated by the SEAI to homeowners, contractors or anyone involved.

“This lack of communication, coupled with the three to six month timeframe of a deep retrofit left many homeowners faced with the dilemma of either planning a deep retrofit or not,” the agency said. “We regret that homeowners were put in this position and are working with them to attempt to figure out a potential solution on an individual basis.”

On 10 July 2019, the former CEO of the SEAI Jim Gannon appeared before the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Climate Action on the issue of retrofitting and gave no indication that there were any financial issues with the scheme. Mr Gannon recently took up a new position as the Commissioner of the national energy regulator, the Commission for the Regulation of Utilities (CRU).

Launch of 3 Counties Energy Agency (3CEA). Marie Donnelly, Paddy Phelan, 3CEA Manager and Cllr. Denis Foley, Chairperson of the 3CEA board. Picture: Patrick Browne
Launch of 3 Counties Energy Agency (3CEA). Paddy Phelan (c) Picture: Patrick Browne

Jobs at risk

Paddy Phelan, the CEO of the 3 Counties Energy Agency (3CEA) – a non-profit, independent energy agency working across Carlow, Kilkenny, and Wexford –  warned that hundreds of jobs across the retrofit industry are now at risk.

At 3CEA alone, he said, as many as five engineering and administrative staff invested almost 1,000 hours on “now worthless” grant applications this year.

Mr Phelan also said that the SEAI’s announcement came as a surprise as there was there no indication that funds were running out agency during near daily contact with 3CEA in relation to ongoing projects.

“The Government has played the green card by setting up this scheme with the SEAI and has now effectively shown a red card at the 11th hour to home owners, businesses and community groups, many of whom invested thousands of euros and months of work in getting their application to this stage,” Mr Phelan said.

He questioned why the SEAI continued to accept applications until the 19th of July when it knew that there wouldn’t be funds to finance works.  “The SEAI advertised this programme right up to mid-June. Why advertise a scheme on TV knowing it was out of funds?”

Mr Phelan said that 3 CEA will honour its commitment to its clients and will take immediate steps to refund any application fee to homeowners, an exercise he said “would not have been necessary if there was early indication to 3CEA that the programme was out of money”.

 “As of now, there is no State programme for deep retrofitting and no new scheme is likely to be set up before the end of 2020 at the earliest. It’s a massive slap in the face to everyone… Trust built up between the various partners on this scheme has been shattered.”

Ciaran Ciuffe, Green Party Photo: Niall Sargent
Ciaran Cuffe at Environmental Pillar hustings Photo: Niall Sargent

Political Reaction

The Green Party said that the decision to cut the pilot scheme makes a mockery of the Government’s recent climate commitments. The party’s MEP for Dublin Ciarán Cuffe said that the news was a “slap in the face” for those who have invested time and money into improving the energy rating of their homes.

“The Government must now sit down with the SEAI and ensure funding is made available. Seventeen firms were approved to deliver projects under the deep retrofit pilot programme. This is a bleak time for them and their staff,” he added.

Louise Heavin, a qualified architect and Green Party Councillor in Athlone who was in the process of applying for the grant, said that she will have to do a “completely rethink” of her plans now.

“Without the grant this will now be financially unattainable for huge numbers of people who are now left in limbo, often with structural preparation for the project already begun,” she said.

“Finance needs to be available in some form to help people move towards zero energy homes, we need to think about the future environmental and financial benefits of enabling Ireland to escape the fossil fuel trap.”

Sinn Fein’s spokesperson on climate action, David Cullinane TD, said that the “retrofit fiasco” is just one example of the “incompetence” of the Government on the issue. “The cabinet has signed off on a [climate] plan that clearly cannot be delivered,” he added.

“It is clear that Fine Gael’s climate action plan is about optics over substance…. Climate change is area where the State could show real leadership, but today’s news shows that the political will is not there.”

Additional SEAI grants for the likes of insulation, heating controls, solar and heat pumps will continue to be available as normal.

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Niall Sargent

Niall is the Editor of The Green News. He is a multimedia journalist, with an MA in Investigative Journalism from City University, London