Feature: Could community action solve fuel poverty?

Environment Journal reporter Georgie Hughes investigates how community solutions can help to solve fuel poverty amidst the current cost of living crisis.

Households across the UK have been hit hard by the cost of living crisis and are struggling to keep up with rising prices, as inflation, currently at 9%, creeps up.  

Energy prices in particular have been dominating the news cycle, with the price cap set to increase by a further £800 in October. An estimated 9.6 million people will be living in fuel poverty following the rise, according to think-tank the Resolution Foundation.

The situation is drastic, with millions facing the prospect of living in cold homes which can lead to ill-health or worse – around 11,400 people die each year as a result of living in a cold home.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak has released a new financial package of support worth £15bn, while oil and gas firms will face a 25% windfall tax on profits, which have soared over the past few months. Still, these measures won’t be enough to help everyone, especially those already in poverty, leaving many searching for solutions to cutting their energy bills.

Climate charity Ashden works with several community projects on the frontlines of the cost of living crisis, using climate solutions to warm homes, empower communities and cut energy bills. Cara Jenkinson, Cities Manager at Ashden, believes these projects are powerful at reaching people government run schemes might miss.

‘I think what they’re effective in doing is in engaging with people that perhaps a council run scheme would find it hard to engage with,’ she explains. ‘It’s hard to get people through leaflets, it’s much easier if you’ve got those connections already. If you have existing community relationships, they could be faith based, could be anything, and then you bring energy efficiency into it, then that’s really powerful and it means that you can target more people that need help than you would reach otherwise. Community groups can be that good kind of signposting, sort of funnelling function to direct people that need help to schemes that are available.’

The cost of living crisis and the climate crisis are closely linked – both have been exacerbated by fossil fuel companies. Solutions to both crises are therefore similar, with many calling for a swift transition to renewable energy and improved energy efficiency in buildings to address both problems. ‘You’ve got these two drivers and addressing the energy price crisis and the climate crisis is really pushing in the same direction,’ says Cara. ‘We need to make all electricity renewably generated, but obviously the old adage, the cheapest energy is the energy that you don’t use. So, making our homes more energy efficient, is clearly the thing to do.’

white and black electric fireplace

Several projects working with Ashden strive to tackle both crises at the same time through retrofit, such as Q-Bot, which uses a robot to apply insulation beneath floorboards without too much disruption.

Widespread insulation is required to meet net-zero targets, but there is a major green skills shortage. While some government funding is going towards retrofit schemes, such as the Public Sector Decarbonisation Fund and the Social Housing Decarbonisation Fund, there just aren’t enough skilled installers out there to deliver wide scale projects.

‘The problem is there’s a lot of construction work out there and existing contractors will say “we’ve got enough work, why do we need to do retrofit?” Some are forward thinking, but not all of them,’ adds Cara. ‘The other issue is getting new people in and there’s a lot of discussion in the sector about how there just isn’t good careers advice on getting into this sort of work. There’s a job to be done to go out and recruit the next generation of builders that can do retrofit and this is really urgently needed across schools and colleges.’

Another project, B4Box, works to address this skills shortage, by training disadvantaged people up in retrofit and creating local jobs. Trainees are taught a whole house approach, so all areas of the building can be upgraded to ensure no energy leakages.

Some organisations are also exploring communal approaches to energy providing, such as Repowering London which delivers community-owned renewable power stations to social housing blocks and community buildings.

Energy provider Ripple Energy is based on this communal approach too, offering customers the chance to buy a share in a UK based windfarm. Customers then just need to cover the maintenance and operating costs, which is often lower and more stable than market prices.

‘Ripple has shown that by owning your own source of clean power, thousands of people can come together and own large scale wind farms that deliver electricity really cheaply,’ says Sarah Merrick, CEO and founder of Ripple. ‘As for the average savings for our first wind farms, the members of that project are set to save £350 in the first year of generation. That level is so high because prices have increased, we’ve shown that if you own your own source of clean power you can get really significant savings off your electricity bill.’

The significance of Ripple is that people have some control knowing exactly where their energy is coming from, putting the power back in the consumers hands. At a time when people are lacking trust in energy companies, as they battle with price hikes while oil and gas companies enjoy healthy profits, this is particularly appealing.

Customers can also experience cheaper bills for a lengthy amount of time since a windfarm’s lifespan is approximately 25 years long. However, the only issue is this does still require people to have a source of capital they can use to invest in the windfarm to be able to get involved. But, Ripple does have plans to address this, as it’s clear the cost of living crisis won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

‘The whole point is that we bring people together into one co-op that can have so much more power than an individual can on their own. I think it’s a really important way of being able to address real poverty, but I think the real question now is how can we enable people to join co-ops and buy into wind farms if they haven’t got their own source of capital?’ says Sarah. ‘So, we’re exploring how we can work with other institutions to enable people who haven’t got as much readily available capital to also enjoy the benefits of green energy ownership.’

As the country continues to navigate rising prices, inflation and energy instability, it’s possible more people will need to turn to community efforts for support. If schemes like this and government efforts try to tackle fuel poverty through renewable solutions its possible two crises could be solved at the same time.

Photo by Ilse Driessen


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