Why “We’ve secured £50 off your energy bill increase” treats us all as mugs

By CSE’s Simon Roberts

4 December 2013

CSE’s Chief Executive, Simon Roberts, reckons the Government needs to change its rhetoric to engage people in tackling high fuel bills

Next Monday afternoon (9 December) I’ll be at a roundtable meeting chaired by the Department of Energy and Climate Change’s new Director of Communications. With no hint of irony, the chosen subject is how to get the British public more engaged with energy saving in their homes.

My opening point will be: “By doing just about everything different from what you’ve done in discussing fuel bills over the last month.”

This is admittedly a less-than-helpful contribution (of the ‘I wouldn’t start from here’ variety). But it is important to understand just how much damage the currently dominant political discourse on energy bills is doing to the public’s future engagement with energy saving.

All the leading politicians and virtually every other protagonist making public utterances on the subject in the last few months have suggested that our energy bills are high for reasons which are variously:

  • In the government’s policy-setting control (the so-called ‘green levies’)
  • In the regulator’s price-setting control (the costs of energy transmission and distribution)
  • In the energy companies’ profit-seeking control (the margins being made)
  • or in the mysterious control of the wholesale market’s invisible hand (the costs of buying from gas traders and electricity generators – often sister companies of the energy suppliers).

All of these are true, though to significantly varying extents (an issue to which we’ll return in future).

In this furore, the public would be hard pressed to see where they come in – aside from being the mugs who have to foot the bill and try to extract a reasonable explanation of why it’s going up from the misleading information and carefully crafted deceits paraded in front of them by a self-righteous media.

This partial debate (in both senses of the word ‘partial’) only serves to reinforce a sense that our energy bills are outside our control. And it corrodes still further any sense of agency – personal or collective – that we can do anything about them. We are reduced to the status of passive consumers with varying levels of buying power.

Yet exactly the opposite is needed if we are to deliver the sustainable energy future to which the Government and Opposition remain committed. We should all be being feted as active citizens whose meaningful engagement and participation in our energy use are central to that future.

Our energy bills are not immune from our own influence. They are the product of the price we pay for each unit of gas or electricity and the number of units we use in our homes. That number results from the energy performance of our homes and our heating systems and the appliances we buy and our daily energy-using choices and habits.*

Of course, the poorest households know this already – but the only influence they feel able to wield is to ration their use of heating by turning it off.

It isn’t a wild supposition to state that every household in the country – even the most frugal fuel poor household – could save that magic figure of £50 a year (just £1 a week) on their fuel bills by taking relatively simple steps to use energy more wisely (without putting themselves any more at risk from the cold). That’s without including all the additional steps we can take to influence our bills: better insulation, improved heating controls, and all those other measures included in the ‘green levy funded programmes’ which need our active ‘take up’

The challenge for DECC’s roundtable meeting on Monday will be to think through how to frame these possibilities so it doesn’t sound like ‘the people’ are suddenly being blamed for their high energy bills. Personally I think the current situation may present the ideal opportunity to engage the public with energy saving. Which is why I’m wondering whether the meeting will back a campaign under the slogan “Get your own back on the energy companies – save energy”.

* In fact this influence has been revealed in the numbers. Over the last 5 years the energy saving measures we’ve all installed in our homes (driven mainly by ‘green levy’ funded programmes) have helped to cut by about 7% the number of units which Ofgem now judges to make up the ‘average energy bill’.

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