Reflections on new UK government review on consumer advice for energy efficiency

As regular readers know, EiD is part of the Energy Advice Exchange, an informal discussion group arguing for a higher priority for the provision of energy advice. It is encouraging that the UK has recently published a relevant review that should be of interest to all EiD readers. Catrin Maby, a member of the Energy Advice Exchange, and who has had considerable experience providing energy advice in Britain, has written an excellent review of the UK report. Her brief review of the wide-reaching report is from the perspective of the consumer’s need for advice. While the focus is on Britain, this is also relevant to the discussions on the European Commission’s recent consumer-centred clean energy policy package. We certainly encourage your comments.

 

Empowering the consumer – because each home counts

December saw the publication of a review commissioned by the UK government of ‘Consumer Advice, Protection, Standards and Enforcement for home energy efficiency and renewable energy measures’. Entitled ‘Each Home Counts’, the emphasis is on quality standards and consumer protection, but it raises many wider points. I have been reflecting on what was said in the review about energy advisory services – which I believe are fundamental to any effective sustainable energy strategy to better empower consumers.

Back in the 80s I helped to set up an energy advice service for London tenants. Amongst other things we monitored temperatures and humidity levels, and carried out energy audits of estates. I quickly discovered that technical analysis is just one part of a chain of events and actions that lead to making a change for the better, and that one of the most important things an energy advisory service can do is to steer consumers through the process, bridging the silos of expertise (technical, financial, social), communicating and negotiating with all the parties involved and doggedly leaping the hurdles.

I went on to work with private households, and found that this is true whether you are dealing with tenants and landlords or with owner occupiers. It meant learning the language and culture of utilities, housing management, tenant organisations, heating and insulation companies, planning and building control, environmental health and (in those days) local DSS offices – and always looking for the common ground. Later I worked with Birmingham City Council on Urban Renewal programmes, and subsequently led development of energy advice services as CEO of Severn Wye Energy Agency – including an enhanced home energy advice report and an early Pay As You Save pilot, and ultimately developing a model for delivery of home energy improvements that centred around a local advisory hub and helped home owners through every stage of getting improvements – with a network of local installers and assessors. The advisory hub was the glue that held the whole thing together and bridged the gaps between the various parts of the broader supply chain.

So what does Each Home Counts say about advisory services? The key proposals are a new quality mark, code of conduct and codes of practice, and advice is somewhat secondary to this – but by no means ignored. An information hub is envisaged, along with innovative promotional activities to encourage its use, and the provision to the supply chain of ‘verified information and guidance materials to use in customer engagement’. In my view, this is useful if it is understood to be just part of the solution, and not the whole story for energy advice. A single point information hub for the whole country could be a useful resource if it is designed as back up and technical support to front line services at a more local or sub regional level – but not if it is just a basic signposting service, with nowhere much to sign post to….however there is no mention of the need for local delivery in the report, nor any reference to the role of local authorities (such as in provision of building control).

It was good to read the comment about the need for property-specific information to better inform and protect the consumer, and the proposal for a data warehouse to include Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) data and (crucially) to make this freely available. Important practical points are made with reference to the need for energy assessments to take into account the whole building, and for recommendations to be practical and to consider the interaction of the proposed measure with the building as a whole and with other measures. The need for an appropriate design stage process is acknowledged, but the review stops short of suggesting how this might be delivered in practice.

Reference is made to the importance of ‘trigger points’ – and the need for awareness-raising programmes around this. This is an important ‘route to market’ for energy improvements (and possibly THE most significant in a period of constrained resources when we are unlikely to see rolling programmes of energy improvements) – but awareness-raising alone will not be enough. A much clearer path to action is needed. And where are the sticks and the carrots? What will actually generate the demand to make these improvements?

Finally, reference is made to the opportunity to ‘provide tailored home energy efficiency advice to consumers during the smart meter installation visit’. This needs careful thought. Installers under time and cost pressure are likely to do the minimum in terms of advice – and what advice will the consumer be receptive to at that point in time? A simple structured advice approach around how to use the smart meter to understand household energy consumption and try out energy saving adjustments could work – but this should not be confused with advice on energy renovations. Providing generic written materials is not the same as tailored advice.

So thank you ‘Each Home Counts’ for raising the bar and stating so clearly some of the key issues facing us in meeting the home energy efficiency challenge – but this is only a starting point. What matters is what is done now to implement these recommendations and develop the delivery and supporting mechanisms. If we are serious both about meeting this challenge AND putting the consumer first, we need to make it both attractive and easy to take action. That means supporting home owners throughout the extended journey to a low carbon home.

 

 

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