Take your pick of the statistics: it was the coldest New Year since the mid-1990s, the coldest start to the winter since 1976, and 2008 was the coldest year this millennium. While we wait for the thaw we're cranking up the heating, but energy prices are still sky high, with the average annual household bill almost £1,300.
The good news is that costs are coming down. The wholesale gas price is now down by 44 per cent from the nauseating highs of 2008, and wholesale energy prices are down 42 per cent, according to energy price comparison site TheEnergyShop.com. Already this year, energy providers have started to respond to falling costs, and it has never been a better time to switch. Scottish Power this week announced a 10 per cent cut in its fixed-rate deal, now making it just £50 more expensive than the cheapest energy deal – the British Gas online WebSaver1 tariff, which comes in at around £1,058.80 a year for a typical family household.
"This year should bring some much needed price drops, and prices could be slashed by as much as 20 per cent around March," says Scott Byrom, utilities manager for Moneysupermarket.com. "This year will see bill payers proactively looking for ways to reduce household expenses – savings of up to £325 a year are still up for grabs for those who have never swapped energy supplier before. Keep abreast of the deals on the market and ensure that you are on the best tariff for your usage, region and circumstances."
Meanwhile, providing accurate meter readings rather than accepting your provider's estimates will mean you only pay for what you use. Moneysupermarket.com recently found that bill payers are in credit on their energy bills to the tune of an average of £79 each year thanks to discrepancies between their usage and billing calculations.
Efficiency is key
But the most consistent savings come from energy efficiency. Turning your thermostat down by 1C could cut your heating bills by up to 10 per cent, according to the not-for-profit organisation Home Heat Helpline. And replacing just one old light bulb with a new energy-saving one could reduce the cost of lighting your home by as much as £78 over the lifetime of the bulb.
"The easiest and cheapest thing to do is to make sure the heating controls fitted in your home are correctly set," adds Harriet Kingaby of the Energy Saving Trust. "Heating controls vary in their complexity, cost about £200 to install and can pay for themselves in two years. And a hot water cylinder jacket, pipework insulation and draught proofing are nice, low-cost DIY measures that will improve the energy performance of your home."
Making small changes like turning off lights you don't need, using your washing machine's cool or half-load functions, moving any furniture away from radiators, and only boiling as much water in a kettle as you need also add up. Plus, a new generation of gadgets has sprung up to help reduce everyday usage.
Small-scale solar charging units like the FreeLoader cost about £25 to £30, and can provide enough juice to power a digital camera, iPod or mobile – no electricity required. Remote-controlled standby plugs are also available, from around £15, which allow you to turn your appliances, lamps and TV off from one button. And IntelliPlugs or IntelliPanels can automatically switch off equipment such as your laptop, PC or TV when it's not in use. Expect to pay between £15 and £40.
And it's not just electricity usage that can be cut. The Zenex GasSaver ( www.zenexenergy.com) costs a breathtaking £595 but claims to cut your fuel bill by 40 per cent, by recycling heat from the exhaust gas which is normally lost.
Energy monitors aim to cut down your energy bills by making you painfully aware of just how much it is costing you. Wattson, for example, at www.diykyoto.com/uk, claims to save you up to 25 per cent of your energy bills. It will set you back between £90 and £330, depending on the model you choose. Its display shows in pounds exactly how much you are spending a year based on current usage, glowing blue with low usage and red when every light in the house is on. But if your budget won't stretch that far, you can pick up the new Owl energy monitor for about £30. This also displays your energy usage in pounds, as well as other information like historical energy use in terms of KWh and CO2 emissions.
Cash from the attic
Be a little more ambitious with your energy saving projects and you'll really see the savings. A third of warmth lost in your home is through the walls, the Home Heat Helpline calculates, so insulating them is the best way to save energy. Installing cavity wall insulation can cut hundreds of pounds from your annual bill, and laying your loft with 25cm thick insulation can save you a quarter on heating costs.
Replacing your old boiler with a more efficient model will also knock significant amounts from your bill. These measures are not cheap initially, but will eventually pay for themselves. There are a range of grants and schemes to make your energy efficiency project more affordable, especially if yours is a low income household, or you are a pensioner or are disabled.
The Government can provide up to £2,700 for households on certain benefits – including income support, council tax, disability living allowance, housing benefit, jobseeker's allowance and pension credit – to improve their energy efficiency. The Warm Front grant (also known as Warm Homes, Warm Deal, or the Home Energy Efficiency Scheme) can mean having insulation installed in your home for free, or help towards a new boiler. There are also grants available to help you generate some of your own power – using solar or wind power, or other technologies such as wood burners. For more information visit www.energy savingstrust.org.uk/generate-your-own-energy.
For more information about grant eligibility, or if you are struggling with energy bills, you can turn to not-for-profit organisations like the Home Heat Helpline, on 0800 33 66 99 or www.homeheathelpline.org.uk, and the Energy Saving Trust, on 0800 512 012 or www.energysaving trust.org.uk. In addition, the Priority Service Register is a database of customers who are disabled, chronically sick or of pensionable age, maintained by the suppliers. Being on the register entitles you to receive certain benefits like free safety checks of your gas appliances every year, and advance notice of any planned interruptions to your electricity supply that could affect medical equipment. Contact your energy supplier for more details.
In addition to providing "social tariffs" for those experiencing extreme fuel poverty, the major energy providers are also obliged to achieve certain targets for home energy efficiency. This means that even if you don't qualify for a government grant you could still cut the cost of installing energy efficiency measures, and can accept such offers from any supplier regardless of your existing energy provider.
Selling property? You'll need an EPC...
For those of us selling or renting property, being clear about its energy efficiency is now a legal obligation in England and Wales. Failure to provide a new Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) as part of a Home Information Pack (HIP) as soon as the property goes on the market could land you with a £200 fine. Landlords do not have to provide an EPC for each tenant, but they are obliged to provide each new tenant with the latest copy of the certificate, or face a £200 fine, rising to as much as £5,000 if you're in Scotland.
You can only get an EPC through a qualified energy assessor operating under an accreditation scheme, and these are often employed by a company like an estate agent or an energy provider, although they could also be independent traders. The Department of Communities and Local Government's website at www.communities.gov.uk provides a full list of schemes. Depending on the size of your property, an EPC will set you back anything from £70 to over £150, but for property sellers this is usually included in the price of your HIP.
It may seem like just another extra cost, but having a home with a high energy efficiency rating can be a very positive bargaining tool when it comes to the sale itself. Potential buyers in these testing times are more likely to be convinced of the value of the property if it has top of the range insulation and a new boiler. Even negotiating a good deal for your rental property could be boosted by demonstrating that the tenant won't need to pay huge energy bills on top of the rent. For more information on EPCs go to www.direct.gov.uk/epc.