Can you heat your home?

Posted on: 14 July 2011 by Alexander Hay

Growing fuel poverty may herald a far greater crisis

Sometimes, 'chilling out' is the last thing you want to do

Perhaps it's better that bad news about fuel poverty is announced in the Summer. Outside, it's still sunny and warmth is low on the priorities for many older people who are no doubt all too aware of how heavily temperatures plummeted last winter.

Yet there is a crisis looming. The latest scandalous price rise announced by British Gas means even more pain for hard-pressed consumers and the number of those officially deemed to be 'fuel poor' (as in, spending 10% or more of their income on energy) has risen sharply to 20% of all UK households. If present trends continue, this number - 5.5 million - will only rise.

There will of course be variations. Much of the well-off south east continues to get off lightly, while areas in the north are worst off, in particular, the West Midlands with over a quarter of homes in fuel poverty, and in an area not exactly known for its temperate climate.

There are two implications here. Firstly, we will have to find an alternative to imported, and increasingly expensive, fossil fuels, and the only possibilities mooted at present are renewables (not particularly viable) and nuclear (viable, but in the wake of Fukushimaalso alarming).

No consideration is given, of course, to geothermal energy, despite promising experiments in Newcastle and Cornwall, but the only real alternative is more fossil fuel at ever greater cost. There was a time, as late as 2004, when the price of fuel was falling. Those days have gone.

The other implication is equally alarming. As climate change progresses, the all-important Gulf Stream could be disrupted, which would plunge the UK into ever more arctic-like winters, making recent snowfall look minimal by comparison.

The good news is that the Gulf Stream still seems relatively unchanged. The bad news is that there are signs, albeit minimal ones, that this will not last. In the interim, the least we can do is to ensure the cost of fuel stays stable or becomes cheaper. It might not always be so sunny.

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Alexander Hay

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