Keeping our homes warm and having hot water is a necessity for all. The way we achieve this has changed over the past 30 years and is about to change again. Each change can have big consequences for consumers, and these consequences can last for decades.
Take for example the case of Miss D. Miss D is a working single mother on low income living in Leeds. For the past two years Miss D has been receiving letters from her energy supplier demanding large amounts of money. Each letter demands a different amount and none of them has any explanation as to how somebody on pre-payment could possibly accrue several thousand pounds worth of debt.
This was the case one of our Energy Consultants from ‘The Green Doctors’ was presented with in September last year. It took some dogged detective work and much patience to find out how this had come about, but, in short, it is a consequence of when the houses were planned and built.
There was a period in the late 1980s and early 1990s when a large amount of social housing was built in the Leeds area without a mains gas connection. This was a time when domestic coal had largely been phased out, and oil prices had been erratic – the first Gulf War had pushed oil to a record high in 1990/91. So electricity seemed the best answer for affordable fuel. Consequently these properties relied on off-peak electricity for their heating and hot water.
Off-peak electricity is only available at night – usually between 12:00 and 07:00 – and is charged at a cheaper rate than regular electricity. The idea with off-peak is that electric storage heaters and hot water tanks are heated through the night with cheap electricity and that stored heat is available throughout the day.
The properties in question were fitted with an unusual meter set up. They have one analogue meter (the one with the spinning wheel) for the off-peak electricity, and a modern pre-payment key meter for the regular electricity use (lights, TV, kettle, iron etc.). The idea is that the off-peak meter is used to estimate the annual off-peak usage. This estimated annual usage cost is then divided by 365, and the resulting amount is added each day to the pre-payment meter.
This overly complicated system is very prone to going wrong. To make matters worse, because the electric only houses were such a failure and ended up costing a fortune to heat, whole swathes of them were converted to gas. So now we have a situation where many households are getting their heating and hot water from a gas boiler, which normally equates to 65% of a household’s energy costs, but are still paying for off-peak electricity.
When Dean, one of our Green Doctors first visited Miss D in September of 2018 she had just had a final demand for £5999.28 with a threat of bailiff action. Since September Dean has made 9 lengthy phone calls to the energy supplier most over one hour, and sent 4 emails on Miss D’s behalf. Meanwhile the energy supplier has missed 2 appointments to have the off-peak meter removed.
Finally, seven months later on the 29th of May 2019 the energy supplier told Dean that they had finally removed the defunct off-peak meter and concluded their investigations. As it turned out they actually owed Miss D £200.10 for overpayments she had made to her meter.
For customers now the use of gas as a heating source is economical and helps a lot of people out of fuel poverty. But is it a sustainable source of energy?
‘Around 14% of UK greenhouse gas emissions come from homes and last year emissions from housing increased – mainly from gas boilers.’ So states the 2019 report, ‘UK Housing: Fit For The Future?’, by the Committee on Climate Change.
Gas boilers will be replaced by low-carbon heating systems in all new homes built after 2025 in an attempt to tackle the escalating climate crisis. To retrofit a home with one of these new systems currently costs circa £25,000. For a new build the cost is around £4,500. It’s predicted by the energy bodies that homes with pre-existing gas heating / cooking will become increasingly difficult to rent or sell as gas prices begin to escalate.
Energy policy and housing policy have drifted apart in government thinking. Reducing our energy usage by efficient insulation is the most cost effective approach we can take. It’s what our Green Doctors help with. Just as customers can’t afford the stress of inefficient energy suppliers, neither can we afford the continuing lack of joined up thinking in government policy, or collectively we will all end up with bills we simply can’t afford.
See our Green Doctor Service for more information