Many community organisations have already taken a proactive role in improving the energy efficiency of communal buildings such as village or town halls and perhaps installing their own renewable energy technologies too. There are lots of good examples on the Foundation Scotland website and through Local Energy Scotland with case studies to both inform and inspire.
But as energy bills soar, creating difficulties for households across Scotland particularly as winter approaches, it is no surprise that many of the community panels and community company Boards we support with decision making on community benefit funds from renewables are keen to help householders improve energy efficiency and reduce costs.
This is a topic that relates closely to several issues that Foundation Scotland has been looking at recently, including how we can support action on climate change, tackling inequality, and improving wellbeing. It’s also relevant to our commitment to support more upstream or preventative action.
Improving the energy efficiency of a home means it can be heated sufficiently with the least amount of energy necessary, making a warm home more affordable and futureproofing the household to an extent against further energy price hikes.
But the solution is not always about saving energy. We are probably all familiar with the advice that turning down the thermostat by one degree can bring cost and carbon savings, but the reality is that many people need more heat in their homes, not less. Underheating of homes, usually to save money, is a significant problem that can have severe negative implications for health and wellbeing as well as potentially creating damp and mould that can damage the fabric of a building, making it ever more difficult to heat, and often bringing about further (e.g. respiratory) health problems.
Given the extent of the current cost of living crisis, upstream solutions may seem far out of reach to people who are struggling with immediate concerns about paying bills or managing fuel debt. There is likely to be increasing demand for crisis and emergency interventions just to help people survive, but groups can also consider longer term solutions as they plan and develop local projects.
This blog is about how community groups can help people make their homes more energy efficient, and how local funds which are within the control of a community – even those small in scale – can make a difference. There is a lot that can be achieved, from maximising uptake of existing support services (at very little cost to the community) at one end of the scale, to developing local affordable housing projects at the other.
Promoting Existing Services
Community groups can play a really useful role in promoting existing energy efficiency schemes that are offered by bona fide, and often government supported, agencies. Local connections enable trusted groups to reach out to community members who might not otherwise engage with national campaigns. Doing so is low or no cost (beyond volunteer time and effort) and relatively easy for groups, but potentially of great value to residents. This is perhaps particularly true in the energy sector, which has, unfortunately, seen some mis-selling in the past. Giving residents the confidence to engage with genuine schemes can make a huge difference to uptake and local benefit.
Home Energy Scotland (HES) is the key organisation which can help householders make positive changes. HES is funded by the Scottish Government to offer free, impartial energy advice to households. Their advisers will, as standard, check the householder’s eligibility for benefits and tax-credits, energy supplier discounts, and a range of support schemes such as Warmer Homes Scotland and other area-based schemes. These schemes can provide new heating systems, insulation and other measures for eligible households, which can make a huge difference to the energy efficiency and comfort of their home.
HES also provide information and referrals to other schemes such as ECO4 and interest-free loans for renewables, depending on what is relevant to the individual household.
It is also worthwhile researching any other sources of local support to which householders may be signposted. Handyman or ‘care and repair’ services may be organised by a local authority or another community group. These often provide basic household repairs and may be able to help with measures such as draught proofing, hanging curtains and putting in LED bulbs.
Information on the wide range of advice and financial support available to people in Scotland that can help with the cost of living crisis can be found on the Energy Action Scotland website or on a new website launched by The Scottish Government. The latter also provides details on accessing Scottish and UK social security payments, including online benefit calculators, as well as wider health and wellbeing information.
Getting Started – low/no cost schemes
Foundation Scotland recently facilitated a meeting between Contin Community Council and Home Energy Scotland to discuss the potential for a local home energy project.
The Community Council plan to organise an event where Home Energy Scotland will offer advice and information to local people about what they can do and what support is available. The Community Council will also look to identify one or two households who might be eligible for Warmer Homes Scotland support and who would be willing to share their experience and encourage others to take up the scheme. They will promote activity through their social media, local newsletter, other community events and word of mouth.
Offering More Local Support
What else can community groups do beyond awareness raising and signposting to existing services?
Where they exist, some local wind farm funds are used to subsidise fuel bills for those in need: Strathnairn Community Benefit Fund for example, offers an annual home heating grant of £500 to those on certain benefits or in fuel poverty (spending 10% or more of net household income on heating costs) whilst Garve & District Community Company offers a more general hardship grant to vulnerable residents.
Other schemes, funded by various sources, including sometimes local wind farm funds, provide help with heating which is also linked to accessing additional services.
Through their Winter Warmth for Older People Project, The Hub Dumfries and Galloway provide free briquettes and kindling during the winter months to vulnerable households in fuel poverty who rely on open fires or multi-fuel burners. Participants are encouraged to take up other support services such as income maximisation, energy efficiency schemes, and fire safety checks. Kyle of Sutherland Development Trust take a similar approach through their Helping Hand Fund which provides £250 per household in need towards heating or purchasing energy efficient white goods. This scheme is also linked to the local Citizens Advice Bureau and aims to help people access other support.
Providing financial support directly to households can be complex, given the number and variety of households in any one community. There may also be concerns about such grants bringing about personal gain as opposed to community benefit. These considerations may be challenging for community groups to navigate, while some forms of means testing can be intrusive and off-putting for householders. However, any household that cannot access the mains gas grid and who’s home has an Energy Performance Certificate rated anywhere form E to G is at considerable relative disadvantage in terms of energy costs and therefore could be considered eligible for financial assistance. There is also a case for funding the retrofitting of energy saving measures in existing homes due to their wider environmental benefits.
To assist Foundation Scotland in navigating these considerations, we have developed guidance in relation to funding energy saving, hardship, poverty, or emergency relief for households where a fund is charitable in nature. The guidance has been reviewed by The Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator. It may also be of interest to those making decisions about a fund who simply wish to be sure that any help offered to households provides public benefit. If you’d like to know more, do get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
The need for direct and immediate support will become even greater during this winter with the ongoing and worsening cost of living crisis which will push more people into the fuel poverty category. It is important that groups are aware of all the existing support organisations that can also help. Contacting energy suppliers is key as they may be able to write off or at least help with debt repayment planning. Local authorities may also provide crisis grants and help to access other services. The Fuel Bank Foundation is a national charity that can provide emergency assistance, working with local partners who are already engaged with those in need, such as food banks and welfare advice agencies.
Foundation Scotland recommends that groups integrate any form of short-term support such as emergency payments into wider income maximisation work and energy advice that will help make homes easier to heat in the longer term, thereby alleviating immediate problems whilst also trying to address the causes of the problem.
Any local project should aim to promote the maximisation of household income alongside energy efficiency. Media reports regularly flag up the vast amounts of government benefits that go unclaimed every year due to a lack of awareness of entitlement or other barriers such as the perceived stigma around making a claim. Various organisations including Citizens Advice Scotland, Age Scotland (for over 50s) and local authorities can carry out benefits checks over the phone or online and help people access relevant support. Another useful service is Turn 2 Us which has an online benefits calculator and grants search tool
Most but not all benefits are means tested and, as well as putting more money in the pockets of those in need, they can also act as ‘passport’ benefits to other types of support – including access to energy efficiency measures and grants. This is a complex and frequently changing area, but Home Energy Scotland can advise on eligibility and make referrals.
Taking Local Action
Beyond signposting and crisis support, there are many examples of community projects which have developed their own local services to complement what is available nationally. This can mean a level of personal, longer-term support which will make it more likely that struggling households can contemplate more preventative measures. From advice on switching supplier to “hand holding” through the application and installation process of heating and insultation through a national scheme, the added personal, local touch can have a positive impact.
There are various examples of community groups employing their own energy advisors such as Fintry Development Trust and REAP in Aberdeenshire, working alongside HES to increase local coverage and impact. The Energy Redress Fund can be a useful source of support for such projects. There are also examples of third sector organisations established with the sole aim of addressing energy issues. THAW in Orkney offers a range of services from providing cosy home packs, to carrying out repairs and helping vulnerable residents access energy efficiency measures and all aspects of support available.
The Vattenfall Unlock Our Future Fund, administered by Foundation Scotland, has funded an ambitious and innovative project enabling Zero Carbon Daviot to carry out a feasibility study into retrofit requirements for the main property types in Daviot, Aberdeenshire. The study completed in March 2022 and, working with other local groups and Home Energy Scotland, the group is now planning to investigate how improvements can be achieved on a village-wide scale. This will be an interesting project to follow as it has great potential to be replicated elsewhere. Seeking local solutions and developing tailored support to fill gaps in national provision may be the key in solving our complex retrofitting needs. Gaps might include accelerating building repairs; improving access to contractors and supplies of insulation; designing specific solutions for harder to treat properties; supporting quality assurance for work carried out or district heating schemes.
The Dorenell Wind Farm Community Benefit Fund provided a zero-interest loan to Tomintoul & Glenlivet Development Trust towards a development of energy efficient affordable housing. This was a major project that saw the building 12 new houses at a cost of over £2,000,000. The contribution from the community fund was relatively small at £60,000 but it was significant in helping the Trust to manage the overall project finances. Another innovative example is a Passivhaus affordable housing project delivered by Nith Valley Leaf Trust, in Dumfriesshire. Grants from SSE Clyde D&G Community Fund and Annandale and Nithsdale Community Benefit Company supported the project.
Providing new or retrofitted housing that is energy efficient and affordable will clearly help to avoid or reduce energy poverty. However, until that is provided for all, many of the most vulnerable households are in, or heading towards, a cost-of-living crisis fuelled in part by rising energy costs. Given their reach and credibility, community groups can play a critical role in supporting householders access the support schemes that already exist, improving awareness and uptake of these and going some way towards improving energy efficiency of local homes and income maximisation for lower income households.
Find out more – www.foundationscotland.org.uk