Rising UK energy prices and falling real incomes during recession have pushed millions more households into fuel poverty, sometimes forcing them to choose between heating or eating.
The Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE) is on a mission to eradicate fuel poverty in the UK. As well as providing direct assistance to people at risk of fuel poverty in Avon and Somerset, it insulates large numbers of properties and offers advice and help on saving energy. CSE also helps other organisations to tackle fuel poverty in their own spheres of influence with a range of freely available resources.
Most impressively, CSE has been instrumental in driving forward the government’s fuel poverty agenda: amongst other successes, its model for assessing the impact of energy levies on the poorest customers has been adopted by government.
“Today I did an ‘energy-advice surgery’ and was fielding questions from a group of mums for almost two hours. They wanted to know about everything – insulation, heating grants, switching fuel suppliers, options for housing association tenants, how to treat damp. They put my knowledge to the test, but I knew I was really helping them.”
CSE’s entire work with fuel poor households since it was established is estimated to have resulted in a current saving of 32,000 MWh/year of gas and electricity combined, equivalent to 7,500 tonnes CO2 emissions.
- 83,000 fuel poor households have received advice or direct assistance since 1980, including 15,000 in the past year alone.
- 3,000 households at risk of fuel poverty have had insulation measures installed in the past year.
- Households helped directly by CSE in 2012-13 are saving a total of £145,000 a year, and a collective energy tariff switching project saved a further £130,000 a year for over 1,200 households.
- Households benefit from improved health due to warmer homes with reduced damp problems, and benefit from reduced energy bills, enabling them to spend money on other essentials.
- CSE aids other organisations in the sector, allowing them to download advice materials and other resources and data free of charge.
- CSE’s research and advisory work has proved instrumental in driving government policy on fuel poverty.
- CSE is continuing to run projects to boost energy efficiency and reduce fuel poverty in their local area, and is keeping government informed of its learnings and progress.
CSE’s vision is to create “a world where fuel poverty has been replaced by energy justice”, and its entire work is formed from three strands, as described below. Its work is guided by lessons learned from its extensive experience in the sector, including:
- The ‘software’ is as important as the ‘hardware’. Engaging people and communities is as fundamental to success as technical rigour.
- Don’t assume people are as interested in and motivated about sustainable energy as we are. Energy experts need to make sure their programmes and communications relate to people’s everyday concerns and interests, rather than assuming that saving a few pounds or reducing CO2 emissions is motivation enough on its own.
- Go with the grain of people’s lives. Don’t expect them to come to you or share your priorities.
- Energy advice needs to get smarter. People need better feedback on their energy use, direct contact with a trusted individual who is then available to support them, and specific advice on which energy saving measures are best suited to their home.
Direct assistance for households
CSE provides services directly to households in their local area of Avon and Somerset, which includes a mixture of urban, market town and rural areas. Some programmes are for all households, while others are specifically aimed at those at risk of fuel poverty. The most significant component of CSE’s direct work with households is their energy advice service, which was run in partnership with the Energy Saving Trust until it pulled out in 2010.
Alongside the advice work, CSE also runs programmes to give practical assistance to households in cutting their energy use, using ECO (Energy Company Obligation) funding to pay for the measures installed. These programmes can install new boilers, cavity wall insulation, loft insulation and solid wall insulation. Cheaper technical measures such as thermometer cards and electricity monitors are also supplied to fuel poor households to help them keep control of their energy usage.
CSE replicates its work in two ways. First, it works with and trains staff from partner organisations in its local area to extend its reach into the community, for example through health workers or advice centres. Second, it makes much of its material available for other organisations across the UK to use, with the choice of a free website download or paying for CSE to post out printed copies.
Policy research and influence
CSE has built up an impressive reputation for research on energy efficiency and fuel poverty, by combining its practical experience in the field with expertise in programme evaluation, data analysis and modelling. As a result it has been able to influence government policy in several ways:
- Working with Bristol University, CSE developed the first fuel poverty indicator for England, which revealed the extent of fuel poverty at local level through data and colour-coded maps. Widely used by local authorities to target assistance, the approach is now used by DECC. www.fuelpovertyindicator.co.uk
- CSE developed the DIMPSA (Distributional Impacts Model for Policy Scenario Analysis), which brings together information on household energy consumption, the condition of housing and the behaviour of the energy consumer market. It has been adopted by DECC and used to model the impact on stakeholders in the energy market, such as households in fuel poverty, of policies including the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, CERT, CESP, Renewables Obligation, Feed-in Tariffs, Renewable Heat Incentive and smart meters.
- Social responsibilities of Distribution Network Operators, where CSE has worked with Western Power Distribution on developing their social outputs, and sits on OFGEM’s advisory group, influencing its regulatory approach.
Social and economic benefits
Warmer homes have reduced damp problems, resulting in improved thermal comfort and better health, as cold, damp homes can exacerbate respiratory and other illnesses. They also have the opportunity to save money through a better understanding of how to use energy effectively and how to read energy bills, thus reducing the risk of getting into arrears with energy suppliers. CSE estimates that about one quarter of the households in fuel poverty that it has helped have been lifted out of fuel poverty, while the others will be in a less difficult situation than they were previously.
CSE’s colour-coded fuel poverty maps proved invaluable for persuading local councillors and MPs that action was required on fuel poverty in their areas, as they immediately highlight where the problems are – and most elected politicians want to be seen to be fighting for the less well-off people in their locality. At a national level, the reports resulting from the DIMPSA model have been influential in government, for example playing a key role in the Renewable Heat Incentive being funded through general taxation rather than energy bills.
Advisory work with Ofgem has helped to ensure the needs of fuel poor and vulnerable households are reflected more meaningfully in the regulator’s work. CSE has also been helping with work at NICE (National Institute for Health and Care Excellence) to develop guidance for the health and social care sector on tackling cold homes.
CSE is continuing to innovate with its programmes providing advice, in-home support, and direct practical measures, such as an ECO-funded project for private householders and a focus on helping pre-payment meter customers get a better deal. It is also developing its volunteer programme, which helps extend the charity’s reach and capacity. In all these projects CSE is continuing to feed the lessons learned into government and other relevant agencies, and make use of them in its ongoing policy research.