Energy cafes can play a key role in targeting fuel poverty, argues new report

Community-run energy advice centres or ‘energy cafés’, can play a key role in targeting fuel poverty, according to a new report published today. Researchers at the University of Sussex and the South East London Community Energy (SELCE) found that energy cafés  offer a cost-effective route to helping people reduce their energy bills, with the savings on bills typically exceeding the costs of running the café by at least a factor of three.

Energy cafés are community-run spaces where people can go if they need advice on energy debt, help switching suppliers, information about accessing support such as the Warm Homes Discount or simply want to understand their energy bills better; and all this alongside some tea and cake in a friendly atmosphere. They are designed as welcoming environments run by volunteers, where people can become more engaged with their energy use and empowered to make decisions about their consumption.

The policy brief, published today, is the outcome of a collaboration between Dr Mari Martiskainen, Research Fellow at the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED) at the University of Sussex and Dr Giovanna Speciale, the co-founder and CEO of South East London Community Energy (SELCE). It argues that energy cafés can result in significant savings for vulnerable consumers, while also functioning as a referral service for programmes to improve people’s homes. By identifying the type of interventions that will best suit people’s needs, they can help ensure that scarce resources are focused in the right places.

Many people in the UK struggle to keep their homes warm, a result of a combination of the poor quality of many houses and high energy bills. In 2015 approximately 2.5 million households in England were classified as fuel poor, 0.4% higher than the year before. Fuel poverty costs the NHS approximately £1.36 billion each year.

Energy cafés  help tackle fuel poverty in two ways. First they can help people navigate the array of energy tariffs and support mechanisms that exist in order to make sure they pay the lowest price possible for their energy. Second, they can refer people to ‘home visit services’, which help improve homes to make them more efficient to run and easier to keep warm.

Dr Mari Martiskainen said:

We have seen the government recently announcing plans to introduce energy price caps to help the fuel poor, but energy cafés can still play an important role in targeting fuel poverty. Services such as providing advice on how to switch suppliers to make sure people get the best deal possible and helping people claim the right benefits will continue to be key’.

She added:

‘Energy cafés, like many volunteer-run, community initiatives, can find securing and maintaining funding challenging. In our research we found that more stable funding models are needed, as the current stop-start nature of funding grants means that many energy cafés  can only operate on a temporary basis’.

Dr Giovanna Speciale said:

Energy cafés are good value for money. They can help make sure that energy efficiency programmes are better targeted and reach the right people. They have an important role in acting as a referral service, identifying those not always easy to reach’.

The researchers set out the following recommendations:

  • More stable funding models are needed for energy cafés and there is a need for further resource provision of physical resources to enable community groups to run energy cafés in localities with high incidences of fuel poverty
  • Inter-agency working between community groups, local authorities and health authorities should be encouraged
  • Training and guidance for community groups looking to set up energy cafés would be beneficial
  • Further research should be conducted into how these initiatives could work more effectively with public sector organisations

Notes to editors:

  1. The briefing is based on work funded by the Chesshire Lehmann Fund and carried out on behalf of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand (CIED), an RCUK-funded End Use Energy Demand Centre.
  2. The research was based on semi-structured interviews with six community groups who have run multiple energy cafes in the UK. The energy cafés were located in East Sussex, West Sussex, North Yorkshire, North Cornwall and West Cornwall.
  3. The full project report ‘The Fuel Bill Drop Shop’: an investigation into community action on fuel poverty is available here.
  4. The Government publishes fuel poverty statistics for England each year in the Annual Fuel Poverty Statistics Report 2017.
  5. The Warm Home Discount is a government scheme under which customers in receipt of certain benefits are entitled to £140 of their electricity bill.

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