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Give power to the people to help them save on their fuel bills

by Michael O'Brien, CAS policy officer. 

This column was first published in the Herald on 13 January 2020.

In a Covid era rife with uncertainty, it can be easy to feel powerless, especially financially. But energy bills are one area where many consumers in fact have more power than they might realise.

Our Big Energy Saving Month campaign, which was launched on Monday, is seeking to give people the power to save time, money and energy through everyday actions.

The campaign encourages people to get energy advice with a focus on five key consumer groups: people on electric only heating, people on prepayment meters, people struggling with energy bills, those who frequently turn off the heating to save money and those who can’t access deals and support online.

With huge swathes of the country working from home, home-schooling or self-isolating at any given time and severe restrictions on other activities, we are all spending far more time in our homes than ever before.

One consequence of this which has perhaps been under-discussed is the effect on household budgets of increased energy consumption.

After all, it makes sense that if you’re at home for eight hours a day when you would previously be at work that means more heating, more lighting and more brewing the kettle, all of which adds up. While this affects almost all of us it is particularly acute for those struggling with energy bills, with inefficient and expensive heating systems or those who are unable to access discounts and support online.

The pandemic has made the issue of energy usage even more relevant, but it is of course not new. Fuel poverty, along with debt and barriers to accessing the most economical forms of energy, are unfortunately long-standing issues.

In fact, figures released by the Scottish Government last year revealed one in four households in Scotland, over 600,000, find themselves in fuel poverty predictions and official estimates suggest this could rise to 29 per cent as a result of the pandemic. So how do we address these deep-rooted issues that have been exacerbated by coronavirus?

While there is no one silver bullet, the Big Energy Saving Month campaign is looking to raise public awareness of the simple changes people can make to help them save.

The first of these is perhaps the simplest but one that we often forget about or let slip to the bottom of our to-do lists: looking elsewhere.

Many people stay on the same tariff or with the same energy supplier for years, without realising they could be getting a better deal elsewhere. There are savings to be made by switching supplier or moving to a different tariff with your current supplier.

While switching can seem daunting, especially if you’ve been on the same contract for years, there is in fact an easy place to start, the Citizens Advice energy price comparison tool. It’s free, offers a full market comparison and is totally independent.

If you have been on a fixed-term tariff your current supplier will likely move you to their “standard tariff” when the term ends – this is usually more expensive and without incentives available to new customers.

Prepayment households tend to be less engaged in the energy market. There are fewer tariffs available, so the benefits of switching sometimes seem less obvious, but there may still be cheaper deals available. It is also important to be aware of your rights if you are struggling to keep your meter topped-up or if you feel your supplier is treating you unfairly.

The second simple step to cutting bills is to reduce energy use. That may sound obvious but there are several ways to save that might not immediately spring to mind.

The most significant of these is to use heating controls to maximum effect. Using timers, keeping doors closed and turning off radiators when they’re not needed, for example not leaving a bedroom radiator on if you’re working in the living room, can knock over £100 from your annual bills.

Even small things like replacing an old-style lightbulb with an energy-efficient one could see you save £50 over the lifetime of the bulb, as well as needing to replace it less often.

The third step is finding out what help you might be entitled to. There are lots of schemes available from both government and suppliers that could cut your bills while keeping your home cosy this winter.

These range from the well-known, such as the Winter Fuel Payment to those that are less-well known like the hardship funds operated by some suppliers. Getting help through these schemes can be intimidating, but information about all of these is available on the Citizens Advice Scotland website or through your local Citizens Advice Bureau.

In addition to schemes designed to make bills more affordable, there are also many schemes out there that can assist in making improvements to your home that increase energy efficiency and keep bills lower going forward.

You can get help and advice on these from our partners at Home Energy Scotland. The service is free and impartial, for anyone who wants advice on making their home warmer and their bills more affordable.

January is a financially difficult month and this year more than ever. So, whether you’re struggling with energy bills for the first time, looking to break a cycle of debt or simply wanting to save, the Citizens Advice network and our partners are still available to offer trustworthy and impartial advice to help you through.