Heating or eating? The demonstration outside the Treasury. Photo thanks to Fuel Poverty Action.
In the winter of 2011, over 7,000 people in England and Wales died because they could not afford to heat their homes – 60 people a day, with elderly and disabled people hit hardest.
On 29 November 2012 – the same day as these figures were announced – the government published an Energy Bill making it clear that costs would go still higher. With Disabled People Against Cuts, the Greater London Pensioners Association, single mothers, and others on low incomes, Fuel Poverty Action demonstrated outside the Treasury spelling out the reality of high energy bills, fuel poverty, and who is really responsible for ‘excess winter deaths’.
The complexity of the Bill, hidden subsidies, financial mechanisms and postponed decisions make it hard to decipher just what it will mean, but we have already been told where to put the blame for rising prices. British newspapers, from the Mail to the Guardian, regularly carry headlines saying ‘green energy’ will be responsible.
We are being told we have to choose between the climate and keeping our homes warm – what a tragic dilemma that would be! While deaths from hypothermia have doubled over the last five years, hurricanes, floods and rising food prices show the cost of climate change in cash and in lives. Lucky for us, the dilemma is a false one.
Desperate people, already skipping meals to feed extortionate prepayment meters instead – and paying more per unit than their neighbours on direct debit – are being told they must pay even more, ‘for wind farms’.
But the truth is that soaring profits, market manipulation and the rising cost, danger and climate impact of fossil fuels (as they become rarer and harder to extract) have been responsible for the lion’s share of the recent increases in energy bills. Rising gas prices, in particular, have cost us £100 ($161) of the £150 ($242) increase over the last year.
Ageing of British power stations means extra investment is needed now whatever energy sources are chosen. (And no-one expects the companies to use their profits to fund their own investment.) Renewable energy will actually be cheapest; even British Prime Minister David Cameron has come close to admitting that. Insulation schemes – now being curtailed – could cost even less, and bring bills down. But energy companies’ primary revenue streams and capital are presumed to be for investment in fossil fuels. While the Energy Bill opens wide the door for the ‘dash for gas’ and fracking, investment in renewables is labelled ‘extra’ and funded by a ‘levy’.
Amazingly, much of what is added to our bills to pay for ‘green’ energy may go to subsidize nuclear power plants, re-packaged as ‘environmental measures’, to carbon capture and storage, and to biofuels which do more environmental damage than oil and gas. There are even plans for the levy on bills to compensate investors when fuel costs go down: that is, to guarantee high prices, whatever the market.
Based on government estimates, such ‘green’ measures now make up £20 ($32) a year of the average domestic gas and electricity bill; with the newly permitted increase this would rise to about £80 ($129). But this is in the context of bills currently averaging £1,318 ($2,121) and rising.
More importantly, without the ‘green’ measures bills would probably rise still higher. The government acknowledge this truth but since profits, investment in gas, and fossil fuel subsidies are uncapped and mainstream-funded, while ‘green measures’ are funded by a levy on consumers, it’s renewables that look like an optional extra: the villain of the piece. What makes bills lower appears to make them higher. A war is being waged on the plain of public opinion. As with weapons of mass destruction, or the supposed necessity of welfare cuts, ‘telling a big one’ – and getting way with establishing it as reality – is an essential part of imposing policies that kill.
Ruth London is from Fuel Poverty Action.