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Opinion

We are facing an energy emergency – government must treat it like one

The energy crisis is still raging and a new prime minister is the perfect time to change for the better, says Mike Thornton of the Energy Saving Trust.

We are living through the worst energy crisis in a generation, with people’s annual energy bills now on average twice as high as last October – at £2,500 with the government’s energy price guarantee, compared to £1,335 in 2021. Changes to the previous government commitment to help households and businesses mean people need clarity and support to face this challenging time more than ever.

If we are ever to overcome the interlinked problems of high fuel bills, energy insecurity and climate change, the government needs to mobilise and lead the country; to address the sources of our vulnerability to volatile energy markets.

The government recently announced it would cut support for energy bills from April next year, rather than in October 2024. It is vital that it now sets out how it will help people after April, when oil and gas prices will still be at near record levels. But that’s just the start of it.

We are setting out a comprehensive set of recommendations as the chancellor prepares his budget for November.

Firstly, it’s vital that the government implements a plan to reduce energy demand. To date, it has focused on trying to safeguard supply. The quickest and easiest way to improve energy security and bring down bills is to use less energy. After all, the cheapest energy is the energy we don’t use.

Too many people are paying for heat that quickly escapes. We need a nationwide retrofit programme to insulate and draught-proof homes. If every home with an energy performance certificate rating of D or below was improved, the total energy bills for these homes would be £8.1 billion lower every year at current prices.

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Around 86 per cent of households in the UK have gas boilers, which is one of the other reasons – along with our draughty homes – that we’re the worst hit country in Western Europe when it comes to the energy crisis. A retrofit programme should also deliver a strategy to scale up the roll out of low carbon electric heating systems, such as heat pumps, with access to low cost financial support to bridge upfront costs.

To pay for these investments in energy efficiency, we want to see an expansion of the windfall tax on oil and gas companies implemented without delay – with at least half of the income invested in these programmes and half going towards immediate support to help those most in need.

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Rapid action on energy efficiency now will mean lower bills in time for when the energy price guarantee is reviewed in April. Not only would it be the quickest and most effective way to reduce bills for households, including those people most in need, it would also reduce the need for future government spending on subsidising energy.

Cutting our energy use would also bring huge environmental benefits. Less energy means less carbon emissions and an improvement in our health and comfort.

Secondly, retrofitting can be a complex and confusing process, which is why a retrofit programme must include the setting up of a national, tailored energy advice service in England, like the ones in Scotland and Wales. This would help people understand how to make their homes more energy efficient.  

An advice service should be set up in tandem with a public awareness campaign, providing clear and widely promoted messages on the need for people to reduce their energy use and practical ways they can do so.

Our third recommendation is that the government seriously invests in the generation and storage of renewable energy, especially wind and solar.

Opting instead for new domestic fossil fuel extraction, by flirting with fracking and approving more drilling in the North Sea, is a concerning backwards step. We urge a change of position.

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Renewables make economic sense. Wind energy is currently nine times cheaper than fossil fuels and can be produced much more quickly. Despite current planning laws that slow down the deployment of offshore and onshore wind, both kinds of turbine can be up and running much faster than opening new oil fields or building new nuclear power stations.

Like the climate crisis, the energy crisis is not going away. When it comes to paying their bills, people will need extra help from April next year. But the UK also needs long-term solutions to long-term problems.

To achieve real energy security, reduce bills in the future and meet our climate goals, we need to see decisive action, credible leadership and results that make an impact now and for the future.

Mike Thornton is chief executive of the Energy Saving Trust.

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