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27 October 2016

How Better Insulation Could Help Solve the Fuel Poverty Crisis

Nights are drawing in, there’s a chill in the air, and everyone is beginning to switch on their central heating. Hopefully you’ve got the interior and exterior of your home prepared for the encroaching winter, and any elderly relativessafely tucked up. However, even with the best of preparation, soaring fuel bills and inefficient heating can put people at risk, particularly these elderly relatives. One way that the risks of substandard heating could be circumvented whilst saving energy would be to promote and subsidise improved home insulation on a national scale. The government does have some measures in place, but these seem to be inadequate given the widespread issues of fuel poverty and heating inefficiency.

In a publicly funded 2015 report released by the UK Health Forum, statistics indicated there are around 6000 excess winter deaths each year in the UK as a direct result of poorly heated homes. Most of these deaths occur within a bracket of households known as those in fuel poverty, which is when a household is living below the poverty line and has higher than average energy bills. This means that the home cannot be heated adequately, and applies to around 2.28 million households across the country. The fact that people can still die due to poor heating in this day and age is bad enough, but there are also many, many more that become less seriously ill for the same reason. The same report estimated that the consequent health care costs of this add up to £1.36 billion a year, with social care costs increasing this figure further, so the scale of the fuel poverty issue is clear.

Properly installed insulation can dramatically increase home energy efficiency, thereby reducing fuel bills, and taking many people out of fuel poverty. According to the Energy Saving Trust, around 60% of annual energy bills go on heating. The average cavity wall and loft insulation installation costs around £800 and can save £300 a year on bills, so represents an astute investment. For those in fuel poverty, it could mean the difference between affordable fuel and living in a cold house. The former provides a massively improved quality of life, given that the temperature of your home can affect your mental as well as your physical wellbeing.

It’s not just fuel that is unaffordable in the current economic climate, but also houses themselves. This means that more and more people are moving into houses that have been built to let, and the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors has predicted construction will need to massively increase to meet this demand. This rented home boom provides an opportunity to ensure that insulation standards are applied during construction, and if properly regulated could lead to a surge in energy-efficient housing.

Img source: dunktanktechnician on Flikr
One country that provides a great example for the UK to follow with regards to energy efficiency is Sweden. An article in The Telegraph covered how the UK has four times as many people in fuel poverty as the Swedes, even though we only pay half as much for gas in a warmer climate. The main difference is that Swedish houses are much better insulated, and this means that they lose three times less heat through the walls. Over the long term, spending £350 million on insulation to reach these levels could lead to £4.2 billion in savings.

The UK does have a scheme called the Green Deal for providing loans to households wishing to install energy saving improvements into their home, a measure which is necessary as the country has some of the most energy inefficient homes in Europe. However, the government has now stopped funding the Green Deal, so homeowners are largely left to fend for themselves. Some energy providers do offer free insulation, though, and you can find more information on these at the Energy Saving Trust. Yet many people do not qualify for this help, and this is where a publicly funded scheme could be advantageous, one similar to the scrapped Green Deal but with a broader scope.

Fitting insulation seems like a no-brainer now that technology has improved results, aided by rocketing fuel prices, to the point where it may pay for itself in 3-4 years. The technology only continues to improve, too, with new insulation materials fabricated and upgraded every year. One company is even turning used nappies into home insulation, so there’s no excuse! However, be sure to research which material you plan to use carefully, as there have been concerns about manufacture using HFCs, meaning a large negative environmental impact.

Still, done right, home insulation is a vital way to reduce your fuel bills and keep your house warm in winter. Large-scale public funding would be a cost-effective and environmentally beneficial way to tackle the ever-increasing issue of fuel poverty, and reduce strain on the beleaguered NHS.

Sam Franklin

With a master’s in Literature, Sam inhales books and anything readable, spending his working hours reformulating the info he gathers into digestible articles. When not reading or writing, he likes to put his camera to work around the world, snapping street photography from Stockholm to Tokyo. Too much of this time spent in Japan teaching English has nurtured a weakness for sashimi, Japanese whisky, and robot cafés.