THE BLOG

It's Time for Real Action on Energy Bills

14/01/2014 10:58 GMT | Updated 15/03/2014 09:59 GMT

After Ed Miliband's price freeze plan took the party conference season by storm, energy was rarely out of the headlines in the final months of 2013.

The most recent twist came last week, with uSwitch showing that bill payers are £53 a year worse off today than in January 2013, despite high profile action from government aimed at countering price rises.

The reality is that this issue has been growing in prominence for some years. When we did focus groups in November 2012, a third of respondents told us that energy bills were a hot topic in their daily conversations, at the time alongside Jimmy Saville, Lance Armstrong and Felix Baumgartner (remember him?). Our subsequent YouGov survey in February 2013 showed that energy bills were the nation's single biggest financial worry, three times higher than petrol bills.

For me at least, energy's newfound place in the limelight has proved frustrating. The continuing focus on small, even counterproductive measures such as cutting back green levies has been at the expense of any serious discussion of what should be a no-brainer: concerted action on energy efficiency. The simple fact is that using less energy is the only surefire way to gain control over how much you pay, with a bunch of knock-on benefits, like keeping the lights on, attached.

2013's depressing mood music (falling insulation figures, lost jobs, low Green Deal take-up, record winter deaths) was enough to make anyone want to give up hope. Yet at last it seems that we could be on the brink of an historic opportunity to change this numbingly familiar conversation and set it on a more positive track. Here are my five reasons why 2014 could be the year when we start having the right kind of discussion about how to tackle rising energy bills.

1. Political change is in the air

We've reached a stage where the credibility of the political answers being offered to rising energy bills is so paper thin that a national programme to drive energy efficiency, with all its benefits around future generation requirements, economic growth, regional development and hitting CO2 targets is starting to look like a real vote winner. Throw in the increasingly emotive 'heat or eat' fuel poverty discussion and this makes it worthy of notice beyond the well-intentioned but often out-gunned DECC as well as a viable destination for serious infrastructure investment (£50bn on HS2 anyone?). With an election on the horizon, such a programme could prove appealing to manifesto writers at long last.

2. A powerful coalition is forming

For all the teething problems of Green Deal, we have a growing number of influential organisations with skin in the energy efficiency game. There are businesses like Kingfisher and Carillion, charities such as National Trust and Groundwork and large local authorities including Birmingham and Manchester. We also have technology and communication companies looking with interest at the smart meter roll-out and of course the energy companies, who have their obligations to deliver as well as opportunities to develop new business models that move beyond piling it high and selling it expensive. As a slew of government policies depart from the old subsidy model and aim to encourage investment from householders, many other businesses are waiting in the wings, viewing progress with interest. It's fair to say that we have a silent majority of organisations of all shapes and sizes that see energy saving as increasingly core to what they do and how they engage with the general public. That coalition now needs to find its voice.

3. There are new reasons for people to care

This time needn't be a repeat of previous failed attempts to convince sceptical consumers of the benefits of energy efficiency. There's now urgency, both from the bill increases that have yet to come (46% by 2020 according to UBS) and from the looming prospect of blackouts. There are new drivers, like smart meters and pay as you save (which is bound to be part of the solution in some form). And, according to our focus groups, there's even openness to mandatory energy efficiency standards (or a car tax style regime via council tax or stamp duty) as long as this is fairly applied across the population. In fact, the signal this would send out around the importance of saving energy could prove to be more powerful than the measure itself. All this needs to be wrapped up with a coherent package of help to aid householders in making the transition and a long-term framework that is able to endure changes of government and the ebb and flow of individual policies. But the potential, at last, is there.

4. The public is behind a cleaner, greener, more efficient future

This ties into a wider picture of the kind of energy future we want to have. A 2013 report by the UKERC showed remarkable levels of public agreement on the desirability of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels (79%) and not being too dependent on energy from other countries (82%). There may not be a deep-rooted understanding of the energy challenges facing the UK and the infamous 'trilemma' at its heart, but in general people see themselves using less rather than more energy (81% according to the same survey) and favour cleaner, greener sources of generation. It's debatable how much more we need people to understand about this bigger picture but overall we have a population that recognises that change is needed and seems allergic to the 'Tea Party tendency' memorably identified by Ed Davey.

5. Could technology save us?

It is already perfectly feasible to control the temperature of your house wherever you are via a Smartphone app. We can only guess at the innovations that might come next but the role of technology in making energy saving easy, aspirational, perhaps even fun should not be underestimated. I've been struggling to think of the last innovation in home energy before these kind of digital developments. The chimney balloon? The condensing boiler? Hardly the stuff of pub conversations.

I'm told that in Germany, there is neighbourly one up-manship to be had from comparing triple glazing. While we may pride ourselves on a higher class of banter in the UK, the conditions for an energy efficiency culture may now be coming into place. For those of us gunning for a step-change in the prominence and appeal of energy saving, it really feels like 2014 could be our year.

Together with Forum for the Future, Behaviour Change is set to launch The Big Energy Idea in March 2014.