Sunday, September 23, 2012

energy action: a UK case study on addressing fuel poverty

Rachel Jones of the Energy Action program in the UK spoke in the afternoon at Covenant Capacity about some of the projects she has worked on related to energy, comfort, and health.  she talked about something scary that is a big problem in the UK that I had not heard about before her presentation.  one of the biggest issues in the region is "fuel poverty".  fuel poverty (or energy poverty, depending on the specifics of the issue and the country/ location) takes place when a person or family cannot afford to adequately heat the home.  in the UK the figure used as a starting point to determine fuel poverty is if it costs more than 10% of the household income to heat the home.  according to statistics, approximately 20% of the UK suffers from fuel poverty.  Jones explained that not just elderly people with lower incomes, but young people and even families with babies or small children are suffering from the high cost of heat.

not being able to heat the home is more than just a little problem, especially in places like the UK.  it leads to unhealthy and uncomfortable living and actually creates significant health problems and causes thousands of "excess winter deaths".  according to Jones, approximately 25,000 people die in the UK every year from "excess winter death", much of which can be directly attributed to fuel poverty.  to me this sounds like an alarming and almost unbelievable idea, that people are dying because they cannot afford to heat their homes.

I had a chance to talk with Jones after the conference.  the story gets even worse when she explains how challenging it can be for her organization to support people.  she tells me an anecdote about how sometimes people don't want something, even if and when you think it is in their own best interest...

the government started trying to address this problem (fuel poverty) along with huge inefficiencies in older homes by offering heavy rebates on home insulation (this is a current strategy in many places, including the US).  owners were skeptical and typically refused support.  eventually the government started offering the insulation for free (much of the funding was coming from the EU and the money needed to be spent by a certain date).  still, most homeowners did not want the free insulation.  in an amazing and unheard of strategy, the government even offered to install the insulation for free and then give the homeowner a cash gift with no strings attached.  we are talking free insulation that will make your house warmer, save you money every year starting immediately, and we will give you cash in addition to the free insulation.  still, it was a struggle to spend the money down and reach the households and homeowners in need.

this story put my jaw on the floor.  I will admit that I am naive and always imagine people jumping at the chance to do good in the world, but in this case we are talking about what may be the single most influential strategy for sustainable living: saving money.  I can't imagine people not wanting to do something that saves money, especially in an extreme case like this, where the work is free.

Jones explained very simply in her presentation; it's about more than energy efficiency and more than improving the homes.  the issues need to hit the people directly and in a way that is both personal and significant.  she listed off some of the key strategies and factors for connecting people directly to their energy use:
  1. it has to be about the people (not about their houses)
  2. you need to understand the audience and their needs
  3. it has to be personal.  the message, the idea, everything
  4. partnerships need to be formed
Jones told a story about a project she worked on called "Warmer Worcestershire", which was directly related to the fuel poverty issue.  she explained that everything from the concept to the story to the strategies was about cultivating and sending a clear message, about understanding the audience and really connecting with them, and about being simple and clear.  why call it Warmer Worcestershire?  because it is about the people, about their lives, and it touches everyone, especially people who are suffering from the circumstances of cold, uninsulated homes.
warmer worcestershire home heat loss map
screenshot from Warmer Worcestershire website showing homes and their heat loss scores.  red is bad.  green is good.
one of the ideas that they came up with for this project was called a thermal flyover.    during the winter of 2009 they flew over the entire county, taking thermal images measuring the heat escaping from each home.  they compiled this information onto a gis map and put it on the internet, color coding each house.  now, any person in the area can look up any property and discover how the home performs in terms of heat loss through the roof.  red is bad.  green is good.  simple.  and on the same page where the person discovers how badly the house is performing: links to government and other sponsorship opportunities, advice and more information, and even direct connections to installers. simple.  effective.  successful.

and one last related anecdote that Jones told about energy use and conservation.  her agency asked the people to come together and help strategize ways to decrease energy use to show the effectiveness of conservation as well as more thoughtful energy use.  they picked a specific week to showcase these ideas and lots of folks got involved.  one of the ideas:  local restaurants offered "dine by candlelight dinners".  what a concept: the restaurants are saving energy (and hopefully money) and the patrons are getting what many would consider a better, intimate, more cozy experience.  simple.  effective.  genius.

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