Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Time to turn up the heat on this old, cold problem

Charities do an invaluable job tackling fuel poverty, but it is not enough and we need a longer-term strategy, says Angela McGowan

With my home thermostat having sat permanently at an inefficient 22 degrees now for the last three weeks, my mind frequently moves into worry mode.

Aside from the fact that the direct debit from my gas supplier has continued on an upward trajectory for as long as I can remember, I also start to dwell on all those other issues, ranging from fuel poverty to overall pressure on our local energy supplies.

As demand for energy rises during this cold snap, the price tends to follow suit.

As a result, local low-income households are becoming increasingly vulnerable to fuel poverty.

The winter months are particularly challenging for vulnerable elderly people - especially in this tough economic climate where there is a rising number of older people who are currently living alone in Northern Ireland and experiencing fuel poverty.

At a national level, the United Kingdom has one of the highest winter mortality rates in Europe - higher than even Sweden or Finland.

And at the local level a staggering two-thirds of older people in Northern Ireland cannot afford to heat their homes.

Energy is undoubtedly the biggest issue currently facing all developed economies.

The impact of energy costs can mean life or death to vulnerable pensioners and these costs have an impact upon the overall economy.

Energy costs can even have an effect on employment levels as local firms struggle to cope with rising costs and a loss of competitiveness in the market.

Previous winter cold snaps have worked to highlight the problems associated with both energy supplies and energy affordability.

But every year we tend to find ourselves in exactly the same position when it comes to these problems. It would appear to be the case that, by the time spring comes around, with temperatures rising, the energy issue has been knocked off the radar and solutions for the following winter's problems with energy supplies and energy affordability have not yet been found.

Essentially, society cannot function without a sustainable energy supply at a reasonable price.

Northern Ireland, in particular, is in a very vulnerable position. Having no indigenous supplies of oil or gas of its own, the economy is forced to rely on imported energy - and, of course, the cost of transporting energy has implications for the final price.

The Northern Ireland Executive's Strategic Energy Framework has now laid down a very challenging set of goals for the region in terms of building competitive energy markets, ensuring security of energy supply, enhancing sustainability and developing the province's energy infrastructure.

A diverse mix of renewable energy supplies is a clear priority for Northern Ireland and incentives for renewable energy investments will be an important part of achieving our overall energy goals.

It is anticipated that, in the next 10 years, Northern Ireland will achieve 40% of its overall energy consumption from renewable sources.

However, in spite of the degree of comfort that we receive from the fact that a sustainable energy plan is being put into action, unfortunately energy achievements a decade from now will not resolve some of our current problems.

As the majority of elderly people across Northern Ireland struggle to afford a warm home this Christmas, we must rely on the valuable work carried out by local charities for providing that urgent help.

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