Energy bills are the biggest worry for many UK households according to new research yet consumers are willing to pay more for infrastructure, including renewables.
The findings are revealed in a survey by Ernst & Young and, together with another university study on fears over smart meters, indicate quite clearly that there is mixed emotion, sentiment and a degree of confusion over the energy policies and structures in the country.
Once again, the lack of clarity over national energy strategy is a cause for concern. After the election tomorrow (May 7th), there may be a wholesale shift to precision in planning but that is by no means certain, given the commitments currently being made by the political parties.
Whatever form the next government takes, it is essential that the worried consumers and businesses across the UK are given pristine guidance with as much financial support as possible to reduce energy consumption and water use.
While heating is a focus, there should be strong backing for every household, business and organisation to retrofit LED lighting and install water-saving products like eco showers, eco taps and tap aerators. Businesses and organisations should also be strongly supported in the adoption of further energy-saving solutions such as heating & ventilation smart controls, intelligent lighting controls and efficient heat pumps with variable speed drives.
The Ernst & Young survey polled 2,000 domestic consumers across the country and found that paying energy bills was a greater worry than covering the costs of mortgage repayment and buying food.
This primary fear is greater among the older age groups, with over a third of those aged 55 and older indicating their concerns (37%), compared with only one in five of 25-34 year olds expressing worries. Households in Wales and the West Midlands had the least confidence in regularly covering energy utility costs. Of those polled, 10% had missed a payment in the past 12 months.
At the same time, the study shows that consumers are still largely in the dark about exactly what they pay for in their energy bills with just over one in 10 saying that they fully understood the elements of their bills (12%).
Despite all this, there is a surprisingly strong support among consumers for greater spending on green infrastructure like renewables and tackling challenges of climate change. The survey shows that nearly half of households would pay more for these (48%).
More than one in four survey respondents (27%) are willing to see an extra £6 added monthly to bills for renewables development, and 22% would pay £5 a month more to tackle climate change.
Tony Ward, Ernst & Young’s head of power and utilities advised:
“Our survey reveals a perhaps surprising degree of willingness to pay more for our energy. But only when the purpose is clear there is a strong link to investment for the future health of our energy system.
“As the majority of consumers take a more active interest in their energy, their supplier and what their money is being used for it is vital that industry and government alike take responsibility to empower and inform them.
“This will not only equip consumers with the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, but also help to gain their support for the reform that the UK’s energy infrastructure needs.”
Smart meter fears
The need for better and more comprehensive advice is also underlined in an academic study just published of UK consumer attitudes toward smart meters. The move to UK-wide deployment of these devices is almost certain, despite recent misgivings about their efficacy and the costs of installation.
We have argued that smart meters, based on current evidence, do not necessarily help people to change their patterns of energy (and water) consumption. Whatever the long-term effect, and we welcome any positive moves in reduction of use, the study by Alexa Spence at Nottingham University indicates that people have other concerns.
Alexa, assistant professor in the School of Psychology, found that many of them do not feel comfortable with the facility that smart meters can enable to reveal their usage habits in some detail.
The study was carried out in collaboration the University of Exeter, the Tyndall Centre and Climate Change Consortium of Wales at Cardiff University, and the Environment Department, University of York.
The survey of 2,400 people across Britain indicates that a fifth are “uncomfortable” with the sharing of domestic data through the smart meter system, which would enable consumers to intermittently use energy through their appliances like washing machines and freezers when the grid has spare capacity and also draw on renewable sources more effectively when available.
There are clear efficiencies in the smart grid system but these do require appliances being connected and synchronised through the new meters. But, surprisingly, those most worried about sharing data were also most worried about their energy bills while those more concerned about green issues were happier to share the data.
The overriding issue appears to be one of trust – many people fear the all-intrusive nature of smart systems and worry that their data will be misused. That’s exactly why the next government should put in place a rigorous, extensive and long-term strategy for education and support in energy management.
This would give households, businesses and organisations the information and backing they clearly need to make informed choices about reducing energy demand as well as how to better manage their water consumption, which is an often forgotten element in the energy-use matrix.