Surviving the winter

How to beat rising household energy costs.

INTERACTIVE_Lead illustration copy
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]
[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

This is the first in a three-part series on staying warm this winter. 

It is 6am. Frost is glistening on the tarmac driveway of Fateh Singh’s* home in Birmingham, the second-largest city in the United Kingdom. The 65-year-old removes the cardboard from outside his car windshield. As the days have gotten colder, he has made a habit of protecting the vehicle from frost that forms during the night.

Inside the car, it is bitingly cold as Singh gets ready to drive to work. Usually, he opts for public transport to save on fuel, but recent railway strikes in the UK have forced him to use his car.

“It’s bad because your wages aren’t lined up to compensate for these ridiculous price hikes,” Singh, who is a security guard, tells Al Jazeera.

Average domestic energy costs have increased 74 percent compared with the same time in 2021, according to data (PDF) from the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

“A lot of stress has been put on us. You’re scared to put the heating on with the way prices have been hiked up, especially with this weather,” Singh says. “You’re having to keep an eye on your smart meter to see how much energy you’re using.”

The UK has recently faced a cold snap, with temperatures dropping below freezing and in some parts of the country falling to as low as minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit). Singh’s predicament is similar to many others.

A recent report by the University College London's Institute of Health Inequality estimates that 18 million households — or two-thirds of the UK's population — may fall into energy poverty by January 2023. Low-income households, children, the elderly, people with disabilities, and Black and minority ethnic groups are most at risk.

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[Reem Khurshid/Al Jazeera]

Singh suffers from fibromyalgia, an illness which causes body pain. The cold weather does not help his condition, and neither does the stress of mounting energy bills.

“My energy provider was telling me I was in debt when I was in nearly 400 pounds [$485] credit. And suddenly I went into 900 pounds [$1,095] of debt. Every time I questioned them, they said: ‘check your meter and send us the reading’, which I did. They said the reading was correct.”

After complaining to his provider and being met with silence and calls being abruptly cut, Singh came across a “Warmth Day” held at the local church - where elders in the area were offered warm drinks and an opportunity to discuss domestic issues such as rising energy costs.

The church took up Singh’s case, but they too were stonewalled by his energy provider. “They don’t want to talk. They don’t want to deal with the problem,” he says.

Volatility in energy and food markets - caused in part by the war in Ukraine - has forced many people in the UK to choose between heating their homes or eating a meal. Many are looking at ways to reduce their energy consumption.

Some are finding creative solutions or seeking expert advice to help lower their bills. “I had energy-saving people come to the house the other day,” says Singh. “They put draught excluders on the doors for me and told me to put heavy curtains in front of the windows to stop a draught coming in. They also gave me three energy-saving bulbs. More or less everything in the house is energy-saving."

However, many argue that the onus cannot be placed solely on the individual. “Nobody is immune from this capitalist system that we’re in,” Randeep Lall, the CEO of West London-based charity Nishkam SWAT tells Al Jazeera, saying people are dying from the cold or being made homeless just because they cannot afford their heating bill.

“A simple question for me is … why is it we’re paying so much for our gas and electricity when these electric companies in three months their profits are £7bn [$8.4bn]. How does that make sense? Who has got the answer to that question?” Lall asks.

According to some reports, Britain’s energy industry could make excess profits of up to 170bn pounds ($205bn) over the next two years.

Source: Al Jazeera