Insulating every home in NZ will save us money

The continued existence of uninsulated homes in New Zealand is having real health impacts. Pat Baskett makes a case for the economic benefits of insulating every home in the country. 

For the last four months, a young woman called Sophie has suffered migraines. She was knocked off her bike by a car turning left across the bike lane, into a side road. A broken foot was the least of her injuries. Concussion gives her almost constant migraine-like headaches, has sapped her energies and forced her to reduce her working hours to 20 a week.

She does her best to feel positive about an eventual end to the headaches, but the winter cold exacerbates her aches and pains. Adequately heating her room in the uninsulated bungalow she rents with three others is beyond her reduced budget.  

This is not a story about a careless motorist or of how helmets save lives. It’s about the continued existence of uninsulated homes.

It’s 20 years since the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Act (EECA) was passed in May 2000. The Act gave the EEC Authority some power and could have enabled governments to legislate uninsulated homes out of existence. Instead, successive governments have chipped away at a problem that affects the poor and those renting.

It was only in July last year that legislation was passed requiring domestic rental properties to have both ceiling and under-floor insulation. Enforcement is another issue.

EECA has a surprisingly long history. It was established by the National government as a Crown agency responsible for promoting energy efficiency and conservation in 1992. This was the year of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit, which marked the beginning of political awareness of what we now know as the climate emergency. So EECA was a good start except that conservation activists were virtually the only ones who paid it any heed.

Then came the first MMP government in 1996, which brought three Green Party MPs into Parliament – Jeanette Fitzsimons, Rod Donald and Phillida Bunkle. Giving EECA some teeth and promulgating its principles became Fitzsimons’s prime concern. It took four years of political slog for her private members' bill to go through in 2000.

But she had more work to do. In 2004, EECA, under Helen Clark’s Labour government, launched the Energywise Home Grants Programme to provide insulation retro-fits to 6000 low-income owners of homes built before 1978. That was the year minimum insulation standards were introduced to the building code. Double-glazing was not included.

The first major programme was launched in 2009 by National Prime Minister John Key. This programme, called Warm up New Zealand, initially provided $323m to help insulate 180,000 homes over four years – still a meagre number, given the size of the problem. In 2012, the number of houses insulated increased to 230,000. The programme provided up to two-thirds of the cost, depending on income.

The Greens had campaigned hard on the economic, social and environmental benefits of such a deal. It addressed both the climate crisis, by reducing electricity consumption, and the economic crisis at the same time. Fitzsimons was reported as saying: “This is an investment in the future health of New Zealanders. We estimate that the country will recover this investment four-fold in 20 years through health and energy savings.”

She also declared her faith in the programme, describing it as “too important to be tied to just one term. I don’t believe any government is going to cancel it ... It’s a big success.”   

There were, at that time an estimated 900,000 “substandard” homes. These would have included the classic colonial villa and bungalow and most houses built before 1978. 

Key didn’t cancel the programme but the National government reduced its funding incrementally. In 2014, it was allocated $30m and this was reduced again in the 2016 budget to $18m with a time limit of a further two years, through to June 2018.

The statistics were, and still are, incontestable. Research indicates that insulated homes use on average 20 percent less energy than uninsulated. People report health improvements including half the number of respiratory problems. Children in warm houses have half the numbers of days off school.

Every dollar invested in insulation saves people at least $4 on energy bills and fewer visits to the doctor - and it’s more like $6 saved for a child or old person in the house. The Asthma Foundation reckons that respiratory diseases account for almost 86,000 hospital admissions annually, of whom one-third are children - at an annual cost to the government of $7 billion.

The current Warmer Kiwi Homes programme allocated $142 million over four years, in Budget 2018, and this year’s Budget gave an additional $56m, thus fulfilling the Green Party’s confidence and supply agreement with the Government. This pays for 90 percent of the costs of installing insulation.

No previous scheme has been so generous, but to be eligible, your home must have been built before 2008, you must have a Community Services or Supergold card, and you must live in an area identified as “lower income”.

Sophie’s rented house is in a relatively affluent area of inner-city Auckland. “I know heaps of people living in uninsulated houses,” she says. And many of these involve an unequal power dynamic between tenants and landlords.

Sophie’s case is typical of many situations where the flat’s leaseholder is friendly with the landlord: a complaint to the Tenancy Tribunal is therefore out of the question. Given the huge expenditure of time, energy and money required, few tenants would be in a position to do so.

So Sophie, like many others, waits for spring and in the meantime, a timer on her phone allows her to enjoy "temporary warmth”.

- Green Party policy is to insulate, heat and ventilate every home within 10 years. They estimate 600,000 homes are still cold and damp. To achieve this they recommend a target of 60,000 insulations a year. The co-benefits would be several – jobs for local workers using mostly locally-made products, reduced demand for our not-yet 100 percent renewable electricity and a healthier population.

- It’s difficult to find a formal policy from National but recent statements by their past and present leaders give a strong indication. In March 2020, Simon Bridges was reported as saying that among the first regulations National would scrap, if elected, would be Labour’s proposed rental regulations and the newly introduced heating standards. A year ago, Judith Collins described these regulations as an attack on landlords.

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