WHILE help to cover energy costs is available, few households are taking advantage, says Jeff Salway
Energy suppliers and government have been urged to do more to help struggling consumers as the number of Scottish households in fuel poverty continues to rise.
The cost of heating a home reached new highs in the early months of 2013, thanks to a potent combination of the long winter and the price increases that took effect in December.
There are now fears of a fresh round of price hikes, with market minnows Ovo and Co-operative Energy last week announcing increases.
All big six energy suppliers – Scottish Gas, Scottish & Southern Energy, ScottishPower, Npower, E.ON and EDF – raised their tariffs over the winter and more of the same now seems inevitable later this year after a recent surge in the cost of wholesale gas.
One in four Scottish households have ignored utility bills because they couldn’t afford to pay them and owe money to a supplier, according to research published last week by the Debt Advisory Centre Scotland.
Many are among the one in three Scottish households deemed to be in fuel poverty (defined as spending more than 10 per cent of total income on adequate heating).
Yet while help is available for those having difficulty covering their energy costs, very few are taking advantage. Just one in ten households in Scotland has applied for government schemes aimed at reducing fuel bills and energy use.
But with energy bills forecast to continue rising for the foreseeable future, experts warn that such schemes must be made more accessible to those who need them.
Several government programmes are aimed at households struggling to cope with energy costs, from insulation grants and boiler replacements to help with pipe lagging and draft proofing.
However, the sheer range of assistance available can hinder the level of take-up, Consumer Focus Scotland has warned.
One example is the Warm Home Discount Scheme, available through suppliers and offering low income and vulnerable households rebates of up to £140 on their electricity bills.
Yet it’s estimated that just 25,000 or so of more than 800,000 UK households eligible for the rebate actually claim it.
So how do you find out what’s available?
North of the Border, the main service to be aware of is Home Energy Scotland. This is an impartial hotline where households can get free advice on heating, insulating their home, saving energy and reducing costs. It also offers energy checks to help identify the efficiency offers that a household could benefit from.
“If you contact them you can get advice on what’s available, rather than try to navigate through all the different options individually,” a spokeswoman for Consumer Focus Scotland said.
Another one-stop shop is Citizens Advice Scotland. As well as guidance on how to manage bills, it can point customers to support provided by both suppliers and government.
Margaret Lynch, chief executive of Citizens Advice Scotland, said: “The main ways in which consumers can save money are by switching tariff or supplier, taking advantage of any financial support you may be entitled to, such as the Warm Home Discount and reducing your energy consumption through measures like insulation and energy efficient appliances.”
Many people simply don’t realise they qualify for assistance that could help drive down their energy costs, according to Consumer Focus Scotland.
“People are put off finding out because they are worried about eligibility, about strangers coming into their house and about the impact of any work on the condition of their homes,” its spokeswoman told The Scotsman.
The way in which the myriad schemes are promoted must also improve, she added. “We urge the government and suppliers to address those concerns and make support schemes more attractive and accessible to households.”
That suppliers could do more to advertise the help they can offer is a familiar criticism. While suppliers make millions of pounds worth of assistance available to customers, their efforts at promoting that support are considered somewhat underwhelming.
Sharon Bell, head of StepChange Debt Charity Scotland said: “Our debt advisers are kept abreast of all relevant grants for utility arrears, and routinely refer clients wherever applicable. However, we believe suppliers could achieve a lot more, such as better publicity of what help they offer, as well as easing the application process and criteria for their most vulnerable customers.”
More than a third of households feel ill-informed about their supplier’s tariffs, rising to 45 per cent of Scottish & Southern Energy customers and 37 per cent with both Scottish Gas and ScottishPower. Almost six in ten couldn’t name the tariff they were on.
Yet energy firms are under growing political pressure to simplify their tariffs and communicate them better. They also have obligations to provide certain help to customers.
All suppliers must make discounted social tariffs available to their most vulnerable customers, with the price in line with their cheapest deal. ScottishPower’s is known as the Fresh Start tariff, for example, while Scottish Gas has the Essentials Combined and Energy Trust plans. For those on the most expensive tariffs, a switch to their supplier’s cheapest deal can save around £300 a year.
Most suppliers will also provide energy efficiency grants to help customers pay for cost-cutting measures such as loft and cavity wall insulation.
Then there are the energy trust funds introduced by some suppliers to help customers pay their bills. The Scottish Gas Energy Trust, for example, can help customers clear not only their energy debts but also other household debts, such as rent arrears and council tax debts. Struggling customers can also apply for assistance in buying household items such as cookers and washing machines.
Other trust funds are more limited, while Scottish & Southern Energy doesn’t run one at all. However, it will consider cutting monthly bills for the most vulnerable customers and offers certain energy saving products for free.
Trisha McAuley, senior director at Consumer Focus Scotland, said: “We welcome the progress that is being made on making homes greener and cheaper to run, but we now need to pick up the pace and put much more focus on making these schemes attractive to many more households by focusing on the barriers to take-up.
“Helping people to make their homes more energy-efficient would help meet the twin aims of helping to tackle fuel poverty and reducing climate change emissions.”
Ways to cut those energy bills and still stay warm
With the lowest cost dual fuel, online deal some £300 a year cheaper than the most expensive standard tariff, there are serious savings to be made by switching supplier. You could also ask your existing energy firm to move you onto a cheaper tariff, where possible. Comparison websites including www.uswitch.com, www.energyhelpline.com and www.confused.com are among several where you can search for a better deal.
Be energy smart
By reducing household energy wastage you can chop a few valuable pounds off your bills. Avoid leaving appliances such as TVs on standby and turn your lights off if you don’t need them. You could keep a close eye on how efficient you are with your supply by installing an energy usage monitor or smart meter.
Fill in the gaps
Just by draught-excluding your home you can reduce your annual bill by some £55 a year, the Energy Saving Trust estimates. Look for gaps between windows, doors, floorboards and skirting boards and, where possible, seal them off. Double glazing may help limit heat loss too and potentially save you up to £165 a year, the Energy Saving Trust reckons.
Invest in insulation
This is an even more effective way of keeping cold out of your home and slashing your long-term energy costs. Around a third of the heat lost in homes is through walls and a quarter through poorly or un-insulated lofts. Grants are available to help cover the cost of insulation, both through suppliers and the Scottish government. Some pensioners and low income or vulnerable households may get insulation for free. Insulation around water pipes and hot water tanks can be similarly effective in retaining heat and keeping hot water for longer.
Buying energy-efficient light bulbs and other low-usage appliances such as fridges and freezers can bring incremental benefits. Replacing all the standard light bulbs in your home with energy-efficient alternatives could save you more than £50 a year, the Energy Saving Trust claims.
Home Energy Scotland 0800 512 012
Home Heat Helpline 0800 33 66 99
Citizens Advice Scotland - your local bureau or www.adviceguide.org.uk
Energy Saving Trust www.energysavingtrust.org.uk/scotland
Scottish Gas: 0845 971 7731
ScottishPower: 0845 601 7836
Scottish & Southern Energy helpline: 0800 072 7201
E.ON Energy Efficiency Advice Team: 0500 201 000
EDF Energy Saving Helpline: 0800 096 9966
npower Energy Efficiency Helpline: 0800 02 22 20