Combined Heat & Power

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Energy Efficiency

Heat Networks

Decarbonisation of heat must work for customers in vulnerable situations too

28 February 2020

Heat Trust has now been in operation for over 4 years, and are currently reviewing their Scheme Rules in stages to ensure they remain fit for purpose. They are looking for those with experince in the heat networks sector to respond to their consultation. The first ‘package’ to be reviewed is customers in vulnerable situations, where they have looked at the approaches of other regulators e.g. Ofgem and Ofwat, and looked into NICE guidelines on how a warm home impacts health. 

The transition to a low or zero carbon economy cannot be achieved unless it works for residents.

Heat networks are an essential part of decarbonising heating in the UK, being more efficient and able to connect to any heat source including waste heat. Like any utility, there will be some customers who would benefit from additional support. There is a more particular need for care for customers in vulnerable circumstances living on heat networks because they are currently monopoly supply arrangements where customers cannot switch their supplier.

In the UK, heating and hot water are essential services for householders. Reliance on these services can be higher among certain residents, depending on their circumstances at any given time. For example, those with young children, those who spend a significant time indoors or have long-term illnesses are likely to have a higher level of dependence on household utilities. These customers may also have less flexible usage patterns of heating and hot water.

Other customers may find it challenging to communicate with providers due to their circumstances, such as mental health issues, those who are recently bereaved or experienced a significant life shock, language barriers or disabilities such as being partially sighted or hearing impaired.

Another potentially difficult interaction is for those who are struggling financially, whether because of on-going low income or recent events affecting financial stability, and many can feel uncomfortable or awkward discussing these issues with suppliers.

Any of these circumstances, along with many others, could affect us at any time, and can combine to mean that we are “less able to protect or represent our interests in the energy market”. This is Heat Trust and Ofgem’s definition of customers in vulnerable situations.

In fact, a Mando webinar recently pointed out that when you add up the various scenarios for vulnerable situations – e.g. considering that 1 in 4 UK residents will experience poor mental health every year, 21% of adults don’t have basic digital skills and 11 million people in the UK suffer from hearing loss – it becomes apparent that these are not minority considerations.

How the heat supplier interacts with all customers, but especially those in vulnerable situations, can have a significant impact on their satisfaction and willingness to engage further with their supplier.

Suppliers can be proactive in providing additional support for customers. Measures can include training frontline staff, both in responding to enquiries remotely and property visits, to be able to identify potential vulnerabilities and know what the supplier can offer that customer. It can also include processes such as flagging customer vulnerabilities on internal systems and robust strategies for keeping ‘priority services registers’ up-to-date.

Some heat suppliers are more prepared for this than others, which is where Heat Trust can help. Heat Trust sets minimum standards for the heat network sector on customers in vulnerable situations, among other customer protection standards, in our ‘Scheme Rules’.

This is timely as Ofgem, the regulator for gas and electricity markets, has recently updated its consumer vulnerability strategy. Customers in vulnerable circumstances is also an area likely to be a key focus of the new regulator when UK regulation for all heat networks (currently out for consultation) is introduced.

If you work in this sector, or are interested in learning more, please read our consultation and answer any of the questions that are relevant to you in the form provided by Thursday 12th March.

This blog was originally posted on Heat Trust's website.

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