Sarah Newton, MP for Truro and Falmouth, explains how smart meters can help to eradicate fuel poverty and so contribute to improving the public’s health.
As Britain’s weather finally warms up, news coverage of fuel poverty melts away like ice in the sun. But, if we are to tackle the issue, we need year-round focus on the cost of heating and electricity in the most deprived areas of the UK.
The sad truth is that there are over four million people living in fuel poverty in the UK at the moment, according to the charity National Energy Action. This means that millions of people are living in under-heated homes, which can severely affect their health and put an unnecessary strain on the NHS.
In the summer months, while heat may not be as much of an issue, simple things that we often take for granted like using a washing machine, having a warm shower, and boiling water to cook food, are still daily challenges for the fuel poor.
By the government’s own definition, this means that by simply buying the energy they need for basic necessities, they fall below the official poverty line. In 2016 that’s unacceptable.
Both Labour and Conservative and the last Coalition governments have launched countless initiatives to combat this scourge. But results still lag behind our ambition.
In Cornwall, we recognise this is an urgent issue – my own constituency of Truro and Falmouth is among the top 20 constituencies with the least energy efficient households, according to the Association for Conservation of Energy. Our neighbours in St Ives have the least efficient households in England. We also know that those who use prepay energy meters are much more likely to be in fuel poverty.
There are about 10 million prepay energy customers in the UK. According to Citizens Advice, they pay on average over £200 more a year than they would on the cheapest direct debit deal.
If households don’t have enough money to top up the meter or live in fear of the next bill, then many simply go without energy altogether. I’m determined that we all work together to find a better, fairer deal for millions of households who can’t afford to heat their homes properly.
There’s no silver bullet that will eliminate fuel poverty. But smart meters – which allow customers to see their energy use in pounds and pence – are important weapons in this fight.
In collaboration with other MPs, I am working with Smart Energy GB, the body responsible for communicating about the smart meter rollout, and also local council members, business leaders and landlords to better understand the opportunities that new technology presents to help address fuel poverty in Cornwall.
We see smart meters as a key part of this. Three million of these new digital energy meters have already been installed. They will be offered free to every home in Britain by 2020.
Smart meters replace the antiquated analogue meters and will put an end to ‘estimated billing’ that has caused so much confusion for decades. The absurdity of estimation is demonstrated in Smart Energy GB adverts such as this one.
The advantage for customers is that they will have much more control of their use of electricity and gas. Instead of being plunged suddenly into cold and darkness, they will be able to track their costs more accurately and on prepay top up their accounts quickly and easily.
I hope this will also take away some of the stigma that constituents tell me can be attached to using prepay for home energy needs.
Research by Smart Energy GB has found that over three quarters of people currently using prepayment meters are interested in smart pay-as-you-go. With smart meters, it will also be possible to obtain much more detailed information about where fuel poverty is biting.
When a home suddenly loses power because a resident can’t afford to top-up their account, energy companies will have that information.
If a household is found to be frequently disconnecting, this could trigger an intervention by the relevant party. Energy suppliers could then install energy efficiency measures to help the household manage costs.
In the future, it will be easier for friends, carers and family members to top-up an account on someone else’s behalf making an energy bill one less thing to worry about. It’ll also be possible to add on winter fuel payments remotely and there will be no need to enter the property to add credit to someone’s energy account.
We’ve got to make the most of this new smart technology. Not only can this allow us to start winning the battle against fuel poverty, but also allow us to secure Britain’s future energy supply through digital infrastructure.