This is guest post by David Hall, Executive Director of social enterprise Behaviour Change
The ominous thud as the energy bill lands on the doormat remains the single biggest financial worry for Britons, confirmed by research we conducted in October, which showed that concern about energy costs continues to outpace our worries about mortgages, food or fuel bills.
Gas and electricity bills have risen by a third since 2010 alone and the small reductions we’ve recently seen (around 4% from most of the big suppliers) will do little to soften the blow as the cold weather continues.
There’s something uniquely aggravating about energy bills.
Gobbledygook about Kilowatt hours doesn’t help. But it’s the sense that the amount you pay is something that you have little chance of accurately predicting and no way of controlling that’s the real sore point.
The preferred response for many of us is to get steamed up and cast around for someone to blame. The mid-market tabloids cater expertly for this tendency with a steady stream of front pages pointing the finger either at the energy companies, the government or both.
The result? Most people feel that there's nothing they can do to help themselves. In our survey, two thirds of people thought that they were powerless to reduce their bills.
And yet there are in fact quite a few things we can do ourselves to take control of our energy bills.
For a start, there’s the simple fact that many of us could pay less simply by switching supplier. Comparing and switching using an independent service will help you take control of your bills and make sure you’re not paying more than you need to. It’s simpler than you might think and only takes about 10 minutes.
So quite why millions of us have failed to get around to this obvious no-brainer yet remains a bit of a mystery. Research by Citizens Advice found that almost half of all people who came to them for help were struggling to pay their energy bills. Of these, only 16% had switched supplier.
There are also plenty of options for wasting less energy and less money into the bargain.
Unless you live in a newly built home, your house will leak heat. Installing the right insulation in the roof, walls or floor will keep your home warmer and help you control your bills. The same principle applies to double glazing and draught-proofing. But even if you don’t want to shell out on renovations, there are still things you can do. We all know that leaving on lights wastes energy, but have you thought about only heating rooms you normally use, washing your clothes at 30°C or programming your heating to be on low while you’re away?
At the risk of stating the obvious, the other way to bring down your energy bills is quite simply to use less energy. For many people this conjures up images of shivering in the dark, in a woolly hat. Given the controversy caused when David Cameron was accused of telling people struggling with their energy bills to don a jumper, the good news is that more sophisticated ways to use less energy also exist. By 2020, new gas and electricity smart meters will be made available to every household in Great Britain. These will provide near real-time information on the energy you use and how much it’s costing, in pounds and pence, helping you identify where you can make savings. If you’re replacing your fridge, washing machine or telly there are also big efficiency gains to make if you choose wisely.
60% of what you spend on energy in a year goes on your heating and hot water, so replacing an old boiler with a new efficient one will make a big difference in helping you control your bills. Modern heating controls like programmers and room and radiator thermostats help you keep your home warm and comfortable without wasting energy. On a more modest scale, changing your bulbs could instantly save you money. Replacing a filament bulb with a energy efficient one will save £45 over the lifetime of the bulb, while changing all your halogen lights for LEDs could save £40 per year.
A Rolls Royce option might involve installing solar panels too and being paid by the government for the electricity you generate.
If you’re looking for someone reliable to do the work, TrustMark, the government endorsed scheme for tracking down a tradesperson comes highly recommended.
While some of these measures don’t come cheap, there are various incentives, subsidies and finance options available and guidance can be found from the Energy Saving Advice Service on 0300 1231234 (or in Scotland, 0808 8082282). Citizens Advice do a good line in advice too on 03454 040506 or via their website.
So there may be nothing we can do about the fact that winter seems to be here to stay. But we can at least soften the blow of the costs that come with it. By using less, wasting less and paying less we can all start taking control of our bills.
You can find out more about the things you can do to use less, waste less and pay less for energy at www.energycontrol.co.uk
About this post
This post is one of a series exploring the challenges of living in, and potential solutions to, fuel poverty in the UK as part of Groundwork's Show Winter Who's Boss campaign. Find out more about our campaign to help people take control of their energy bills by visiting the Show Winter Who's Boss page.