The SHIFT conference on Fuel Poverty-Identifying Solutions took place on 28th September 2012, in the Church House Conference Centre, just a stone’s throw away from Westminster Abbey. Energy Experts, government departments and representatives from a variety of housing associations provided a wide breadth of speakers on the importance of fuel poverty as an important factor in social housing and tackling our future energy savings plans in the light of the Green Deal.
The green deal, and with it the energy company obligation (ECO), is a new initiative that has come live this October with the aim of pushing Britain towards higher energy efficiency. The principle appears simple. Energy companies are obliged to offer householders, i.e. the bill payers for energy, a solution whereby their properties are improved at no upfront cost to them. Instead an agreement is reached where the energy bill repayments will be less over the lifetime of the property than they would have been without the improvements, but with some repayment towards the energy companies. It appears to be a win-win situation as described by the DECC in their presentation. The householder saves on their bills, the country as a whole becomes more energy-efficient, and the energy providers recoup their initial investment in the improvements.
However Prof Brenda Boardman saw the green deal in a slightly different light. She is author of a study "Achieving zero: delivering future friendly buildings" and also of the book "Fixing fuel poverty: challenges and solutions". In her eyes the following would not benefit from the Green Deal:
• the fuel poor
• small households
• tenants in F or G rated properties
• anyone with a mortgage
In fact, in her opinion, the only ones who would benefit would be the elderly and those who wholly owned their properties.
Furthermore the fanfare of the Green Deal hides cuts in government investment for the Warm Front from £350 million to 0 at the end of this year. And the government has given up its objective of eradicating fuel poverty by 2016 and now only stated commitment to tackling it.
The situation is exacerbated, as noted by the speaker from the National Energy Action, by the fact that England is largely lagging behind the other states within the United Kingdom, in terms of its energy policy.
It is therefore all the more laudable that different housing associations have been looking at innovative solutions that would allow their landlords to understand and protect tenants from fuel poverty.
The running thread throughout these latter presentations was the benefit of educating the householders within the housing associations. This could range from having a "Green doctor" who could give advice on energy-efficient behaviour, to targeting improvements to the worst properties and bringing them up to at least the minimum SAP rating of around 80.
Gentoo, which manages about 30,000 properties, has "improving the art of living" as its objective. They asked staff and customers how much they would be willing to pay for energy efficiency improvements. Many were willing to pay an extra five pounds a week. Of the 12,000 properties retrofitted by Gentoo to date, 88% took on solar panels at an extra £1 a week and double glazing at an extra couple of pence per week. Only a few properties were not really interested in having improvements. The novel element was to collect the money for these improvements as part of the rent. The payment collection system was familiar to the householders and news soon spread around the community, creating a positive feedback to implement the changes. Note that this is an alternative system, independent of the Green Deal.
We also heard about the RELISH program from Worthing Homes. This looked at the impact of householder education with and without energy efficiency measures. The most amazing observation was, that householder education achieved the highest impact in terms of energy efficiency. Education alone resulted in an 18% drop in energy usage, amounting to approximately £220 per year savings. Low-cost improvements plus education reduced bills by £368. Low-cost improvements alone (without education) only achieved a £38 saving over the year. The key message was that householders could be removed from fuel poverty by education alone.
Fuel poverty is defined as when the expenditure on energy exceeds 10% of the household budget. With ever increasing fuel costs evermore people (and not just those on the lowest incomes) are falling within this margin.
Therefore, the message that education alone can reduce household energy bills by up to 20% is a significant insight that should be made more widely known.