One of the main domestic uses of energy is to warm our buildings in the colder months (and something to cool them in hot summers). For many this will be done by gas central heating, for some electricity is used with night storage heaters or other systems, whilst others rely on oil, bottled gas, solid fuel or, increasingly, wood-burners.
‘Fuel Poverty’ is the term used when people on low incomes are not able to afford to heat their homes adequately. Rising gas, oil and electricity prices can mean families and individuals either not being able to pay, or unhealthily reducing, their heating bills. 20% of over 60s sometimes stay or live in just one heated room in their home to save money. Some 5% of pensioners will skip meals in order to pay for heating. Single parent households can also suffer from a lack of warmth at home.
In rural areas, where choices of fuel supply are limited, fuel poverty may be hidden but is very real for those affected by it. In Torridge in north Devon, figures suggest that 26% of the population suffer from fuel poverty. More generally, 31% of older people in rural areas of the South West struggle with low income and deprivation issues, and in 2012/13 there were 31,100 excess winter deaths in England and Wales.
The housing stock in England is notoriously poor at energy conservation and this compounds fuel poverty. Around £8 billion of energy is wasted in the UK every year because some homes are poorly insulated, have inefficient or poorly controlled heating systems and waste electricity unnecessarily. This is equal to giving £125 a year to every man, woman and child in the UK!
The Energy Saving Advice Service (0300 123 1234) provides free and impartial advice on how to save energy in your home. Grants are available from Local Authorities for better insulating homes, and in some places also for double-glazing and boiler replacement.
Fuel poverty is said to occur when in order to heat its home to an adequate standard of warmth a household needs to spend more than 10% of its income on total fuel use. The definition does not take account of the amount that a household actually spends on fuel, nor the amount available for the household to spend on fuel after other costs have been met.