The Conversation: The UK needs a national energy advice service

The UK government recently launched “It all adds up”, a campaign aimed at providing “simple, low or no-cost actions that households can take to immediately cut energy use and save money”. The campaign speaks to persistent calls to increase the assistance provided to households across the UK.

Rapid energy price rises have pushed millions into fuel poverty, with an estimated 9 million people spending Christmas 2022 in cold and damp homes. For many, independent advice on safely reducing energy use and accessing financial assistance can make a vital difference in confronting the combined cost of living and energy crises.

Trustworthy advice goes far beyond a few short-term behavioural “hacks” – some of which have been rightly criticised – to also include deeper measures to upgrade the UK’s inefficient housing stock.

To meet its climate change targets and protect households from rising energy costs, the UK must rapidly insulate millions of homes and install low-carbon technologies such as heat pumps. But installing such measures is often complicated and there is limited information, guidance or support. The UK can’t decarbonise its energy system without increasing the help available to households from trained energy experts.

Reducing the UK’s carbon emissions should go hand-in-hand with tackling fuel poverty. Inefficient housing, heating systems and appliances are key drivers of fuel poverty, and people living in well-insulated, low-carbon homes are more likely to have affordable energy bills. While advice alone will never solve fuel poverty, when combined with other measures it can make a vital contribution. Advisers can point people towards appropriate government aid and utility support schemes or help arrange debt repayment plans, or insulation and heating upgrades.

We know what works

Academic and policy experts, including ourselves, have undertaken extensive research on integrated energy advice in the UK and beyond. Numerous pilot projects across the UK and similar countries provide a useful testbed for understanding what works.

Research has shown there are several important factors, such as how energy advice is communicated, who is providing it, and how it is framed. The most effective forms of energy advice are those that are tailored to individual conditions, primarily via in-person, community-based and context-sensitive work.

Yet energy advice provision in the UK remains fragmented and insufficient, with inconsistent coverage across the country. Organisations such as Citizens Advice do brilliant work, but they don’t have the resources to provide widespread, personalised advice.

NEAS to meet you

One thing that might help is the establishment of a National Energy Advice Service. Akin to the efforts involved in building the UK’s National Health Service back in the 1940s, it could provide widely accessible, free support for anyone who needs it. With dedicated funding from utilities or government, the service could help integrate all elements of the retrofit supply chain, it could reduce skills shortages and help address both fuel poverty and the transition to net zero.

What does this mean in practice? People wanting to improve the energy performance of their home would be able to access a single advice line, or a website. This could either lead to an adviser visit, or advice could be provided remotely if more appropriate. The advice would allow a household to identify the best options in light of its budget and other circumstances, and any support or subsidy schemes that might be available. Perhaps most importantly, people could be pointed towards certified sellers and installers of relevant materials.

The advice service could also work directly with government agencies, the NHS and community groups to seek out and approach those who might benefit from energy efficiency upgrades. This could be done at the neighbourhood scale, through area-based targeting, community retrofit coordinators, energy cafes, or other local initiatives. Any households or businesses who sign up would be advised on support schemes and energy upgrade options.

Everyone should have access to state-of-the-art energy measures, regardless of their income or other forms of disadvantage. The service must not be restricted to those with the confidence and resources to take the initiative.

So there is a strong case that this would promote energy justice. By integrating financial subsidies, and working with trustworthy installers and companies, a national-level advice service could help promote equitable access to low-carbon energy for all.

- This article was originally published on The Conversation and is written by Neil Simcock,  Senior Lecturer in Geography, LJMU and Ami Crowther and Stefan Bouzarovski of the University of Manchester.


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