A Conversation with: Ovesco Energy Champions

Ovesco are a community owned renewable energy company in East Sussex with a vision in which “100% of our energy needs are generated locally from renewable sources” they have a number of inspiring missions but what does this have to do with food?

One of the working groups of the Lewes District Food Partnership is ‘Food & Fuel’ which looks at the links between food and other essential costs like energy bills. We acknowledge that someone who is experiencing food poverty is most likely experiencing many other forms of hardship and it is unlikely that all they need is support with food. We must ensure a joined-up approach which looks beyond the Cost-of-Living Crisis to create sustainable pathways for residents to make choices based on what is best for them, rather than what they can afford within their limited budget, which is often not enough for a healthy lifestyle.

Ovesco have been running an ‘Energy Bill Help & Advice’ Scheme since 2021 which has been welcomed by many in the face of the Cost-of-Living Crisis. Ovesco ‘Energy Champions’ have been attending community events and food banks across the Lewes District to share tips and advice to save money on energy bills but also help residents to identify if they could be on a lower tariff or if there are any grants they are eligible for.

We asked Nicki Myers who is the Project Manager and Jonathon Scripps who works as an Energy Champion for some more info about the scheme.

Q: What do Ovesco Energy Champions do?

A: We give energy advice! We can advise people how to use less energy in their house to save carbon and money.  In more detail, we can look at client’s gas and electric bills, advise that they are receiving the correct government support, help them talk to their energy provider with any issues, eg direct debits, smart meters incorrect readings, moving house issues.  Advise and tips on reducing energy usage in the home, advice on preparing for the cold months and staying warm especially those who are elderly and with chronic conditions.    We have been able to provide free kits for the home which help to reduce heat loss and drafts.  We can also advise households on fabric improvement – and if any grants are available.    We were able to start attending events due to obtaining Big Energy Saving Network funding in the autumn of 2021 and have also been given funding from UK Power Networks via their Power Partners funding stream.

Q: Have you noticed any trends since working within the community of the Lewes District?

A: In 2022 we have reached over 1000 people in the Lewes District.  We have seen a range of issues faced by residents which is understandably very wide and includes, fuel poverty, fuel debt, issues with direct debit increases, keeping warm, smart meter technical problems, redeeming vouchers via paypoint, delays in grants and government support, accessing all the available help and signposting to other agencies such as CAB & charities, for example.

Q: What does the phrase ‘Heat or Eat’ mean?

A: The choice that some people have to make between either heating their house or affording to buy food.

Q: Are there any energy ‘myths or misconceptions’ you think need debunking?

A: When the energy and cost of living crisis first started, the media talked about the cost of bills for the “average house”.  Many people found this confusing because they were not sure if they lived in an average house and for some people the average bills that were being talked about were much more than the bills they would normally pay.  Others thought that the government was going to cap bills at a set amount (rather than cap the unit cost of energy) and thought that they could use as much energy as they wanted because they would only pay this average amount. We also found that people did not know they could set their direct debits themselves and were not beholden to the utility companies.

Q: How is the experience for people on prepayment meters different in this Cost-of-Living Crisis?

A: The COLC has especially impacted those on prepayment meters for a number of reasons. We hear that their credit balance is used up very fast becasue the unit (kWh) price of electricity and has risen so much, they are not able to take advantage of privileges granted to customers on direct debits who can flatten out their usage by averaging out payments over a 12 month period, effectively overpaying in the summer and underpaying in the winter. Aslo, in the case of gas, they may not use their gas supply for many months when the weather is warm, they come run the meter down to zero, then add credit when they need heating and 4  or 5 months worth of standing daily charges eats up all their credit before they can use the heating.

It’s a stressful existence and can often force people  into difficult choices about where to direct the little money they do have, the eat or heat conundrum etc.

We have also heard from prepayment customers that the remote control of their credit balance has sometimes made it impossible to work out what money is theirs as their energy supplier has had computer errors which arbitrarily adds or subtracts amounts of money, in some cases up to £900 of credit appears and disappears at random times. The net result is usually people panic and switch everything off and then struggle to get a satisfactory answer for their suppliers customer service dept. and it can take weeks for any resolution, meanwhile they are very cautious about heating their homes, or adding any credits they do receive such as government EBSS (£400 divided into 6 lots) vouchers to their credit balance, at a time when they most need it.

Need help with your energy bills?

Anyone is able to access energy advice via the Energy Champions. Follow this link for helpful resources and a list of drop-in sessions in the Lewes District and how to get in contact.

Or you can contact energyadvice@ovesco.co.uk for an appointment
or freephone 0800 458 9045

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