Government outlines zero-carbon home definition

The government yesterday launched its long-awaited consultation on the proposed legislation governing its zero-carbon homes strategy, outlining the standards builders will have to meet to achieve the target of ensuring all new homes qualify as zero carbon by 2016.

The proposals secured a cautious welcome from the UK Green Building Council (GBC), which said that they would give construction firms the regulatory certainty they had been looking for. However, it also warned that some of the proposed regulations were too lax and if adopted would risk undermining the original zero-carbon home target.

Speaking at the publication of the consultation document, housing minister Margaret Beckett said that the government remained "absolutely committed" to meeting the 2016 goal. "With the consultation process we are launching today, we are confident we will be able to achieve our ambitions while giving the industry flexibility for how they get there," she added.

Under the proposals, house builders will be required to meet tough new standards on energy efficiency and meet targets on the minimum level of emission reductions that are to be achieved through insulation and onsite renewable energy technologies.

The government has also addressed the controversial issue of how new zero-carbon homes will be powered, by setting out a list of "allowable solutions " that can contribute to meeting the zero-carbon target.

Developers had been concerned the government would require all energy used by zero-carbon homes to be generated onsite or by small-scale local renewable power plants connected directly to the home - a scenario they claimed would prove both costly and in some cases unfeasible.

Instead, the government will allow developers to qualify homes as zero carbon by funding offsite emission reduction projects or "allowable solutions", such as wind farms or technologies for exporting waste heat from the housing development.

Speaking to, John Alker of the UK Green Building Council welcomed the proposal, arguing that it should give builders the flexibility they require to ensure the target is met.

However, he added that some of the "allowable solutions" should not be included in the final legislation as they risked undermining the original zero-carbon ambition.

"The majority of the proposals look good, but the one we have an issue with is the idea that a developer could qualify a home as zero carbon by funding energy efficiency improvements in existing homes nearby," he said. "The government needs to draw a line between investments in increasing renewable energy capacity and low-carbon infrastructure and simply reducing energy demand, which should be happening anyway."

He added that allowing builders to qualify a home as zero carbon by paying to insulate other homes in the neighbourhood would prompt justifiable questions as to how zero carbon the new homes were.

The GBC also expressed concerns over government proposals to cap the cost of "allowable solutions", arguing that while it was intended to give developers greater certainty over future costs, it could undermine the case for investing in greener buildings.

"The beauty of the 2016 target is that it gives builders a clear target that they have to meet," said Alker. "By saying that if the cost of allowable solutions proves too high it will open up the definitions further to allow cheaper technologies, there is a danger that developers will see a get-out clause and push for the definitions to be watered down."

There was also criticism of the government's failure to deliver a similar consultation on its target of ensuring all commercial buildings qualify as zero carbon by 2019. The government has said the consultation on that legislation will not appear until later in 2009.

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