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Reducing energy bills? What’s the answer?

Energy bills are back in the news again – so there must be an election!

The focus, as during the last election, is on reducing bills by freezing or capping energy tariffs.  This policy is set to divide opinion with supporters claiming it will fix a broken energy market and detractors claiming it will reduce competition and choice and lead to higher average prices. Rather than enter this divisive debate, I prefer to offer an alternative solution that all parties (political and otherwise) can agree upon. That solution is energy efficiency!

The best and most obvious way to reduce our energy bills is to reduce our use of energy. The installation of measures which improve the energy efficiency of our homes and buildings can have a very significant impact on bills and also reduce carbon emissions and provide energy security – something which capping or freezing bills cannot claim to achieve.

Reducing waste is surely something we can all agree is a good idea regardless of our political persuasion. However, many people consider waste to be something they put in the bin, but just as a leaky tap can waste gallons of water, so too a leaky house can waste energy. Heat can escape through the roof, the walls and the doors and inefficient heating systems without basic controls can also waste energy unnecessarily.

Technology has progressed over recent years, we now have highly efficient insulation materials, improved building methods and highly efficient heating products including smart controls. Reducing energy waste by encouraging energy efficiency should be the foundation of any energy policy aimed at lowering bills and carbon emissions. So why isn’t the debate about energy efficiency – surely this is the obvious solution?

Work is underway to improve the Energy Companies Obligation (ECO) to better target those unable to afford their energy bills. The new ECO is designed to facilitate the involvement of local authorities and should also bring together local communities and knowledgeable and respected organisations who understand the local circumstances such as housing associations to bring about scale and price reductions.

In addition to this targeting of fuel poor, we need to encourage the rest of the market to recognise energy efficiency as an obvious and value adding choice. We need a policy framework that assigns value to energy efficiency in a way that consumers and society recognise.  Those able to spend money on their homes often see value in fitting new bathrooms or kitchens but rarely on improving the energy efficiency of their home – yet efficiency improvements will reduce their costs and last significantly longer than a new kitchen. A combination of regulation changes, targeted incentives and funding mechanism that nudge consumer behaviour is required. The Sustainable Energy Association’s policy paper Energy Efficiency – A policy Pathway sets out a range of such incentives.  

Another area we need to tackle is the new build market. At a time when we are building new homes across the country, it is crucial that we build energy efficient homes. It has been argued in the past that we cannot afford to increase the cost of new buildings. I would argue the converse -as a society we cannot afford the cost of building inefficient buildings! These buildings will last for more than 100 years and we need to ensure that they are efficient and economical to heat – not wasteful and leaky.  The building of a new home is the optimal and cheapest time to get the fabric and the heating system right. Tighter energy efficiency standards were meant to come into force in 2016 but were scrapped. Unless we want to have this same debate about energy bills every time we have an election, we need to ensure that our new homes are built to higher standards. So, at this time of debate about how to reduce energy bills the answer is to use less energy. This doesn’t mean eating rather than heating, it means a policy pathway that facilitates insulating and heating more efficiently.

Lesley Rudd, Chief Executive of the Sustainable Energy Association

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Wednesday, May 10th, 2017