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Wasting away

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;

Ed Miliband and David Cameron can witter on all they like about putting a cap on energy bills or rolling back the eco-levy. It won’t solve the basic, undeniable truth of the problem which is that we, as a nation, use far too much energy (and water, which is related) to go about our daily lives.

We’re all guilty of it – leaving lights on in rooms we’re not using, leaving the iPad charging up when it’s already fully charged and putting the kettle on, going off to do something else and forgetting to make the tea so that you need to boil the kettle again when you remember (I’ll put my hands up to that one).

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that putting a cap on energy bills might have the disastrous effect of encouraging us to use more, or at the lest mot worry so much about saving energy. There are people out there who will think “the bills aren’t going to go any higher so I’ll just whack the thermostat up a bit instead of reaching for another sweater”.

The best way to get householders to think about the amount of energy they use is, certainly, to start off by equating it to how much it costs them. That’s what will grab them by the whatsits, the money aspect. However, it’s only recently that the majority of households have really cottoned on to how much they are spending on energy because the price rises have been so well publicised, so criticised and well, so bloody high.

The monthly direct debit tells us how much the energy companies are taking us for each month, but they don’t really tell us anything about how much energy we are actually using. I defy anyone to equate the figures on the gas bill with exactly how many therms or kilojoules or whatever they are actually using. And how many hot baths will a kilojoule heat up anyway? That’s the sort of information that the bills should be telling us.

So, in the assumed absence o9of an energy bill that actually tells us something useful, we’re going to have to change hearts and minds.

Enter the redoubtable Tim Pollard, Plumb Center’s sustainability guru and the face of Plumb Center’s Manifesto for Saving Energy. Tim has long known that it is good to save energy, it’s good to save money and it’s also good to make money. If you can do all three at once, then you’re onto a winner. He once told me “I’m a builders merchant, not a tree-hugger. I want to make money.”

The manifesto says (it’s very long so this is just a bit of it) that “consumers have, for too long, struggled to understand the jargon associated with energy efficiency measures to improve their homes. Educating consumers about the need to make improvements to their homes, based on a purely environmental argument, has consistently failed to resonate. We need to shift this debate, focusing on the need to reduce energy waste, which ultimately saves consumers money. With spiralling living costs – and in particular higher energy bills putting a squeeze on households – consumers need to understand the value of making small improvements to their homes”

Well, precisely. Consumers need to understand that little things can add up to a lot. That turning the lights off when you leave a room is better than not doing so. That investing in some TRVs or a decent room thermostat will prevent the empty spare room being heated to the same temperature as the sitting room, despite the next person to use it being Grandma at Christmas.

There also needs to be a correlation in consumers’ minds between energy use and water use. One of the things that Plumb Center’s manifesto points out is that the biggest use of energy is for heating water and the biggest use of water is not the lavatory (unless you’re lumbered with 25 year old 15 litre cisterns like mine), but the shower.

Short of a big government-funded advertising campaign to get us all to switch off, turn-off and have shorter showers (and we all know how well the last Government funded advertising campaign – on the Green Deal – has worked), the best way of getting the message across to householders about changes to their environment that can make a big difference is via someone they know and trust.

Such as the plumber they call everytime to boiler breaks down or the bathroom tap starts dripping. A tradesman that they have used before, who they believe when he says this product or that product will help them to reduce their energy bills.

And who has the best relationship with plumbers and heating installers in order to get the message across to them in the first place? Plumbers and builders merchants.

The energy revolution has to start somewhere. It might as well start with this industry.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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