Energy bills: Advice to keep on top of rising costs – and still keep warm

Cornwall Insight has forecast that average bills will fall by 16% on the previous quarter (PA) (PA Wire)
Cornwall Insight has forecast that average bills will fall by 16% on the previous quarter (PA) (PA Wire)

The start of this year saw energy bills rise once again, as Ofgem increased the UK’s energy price cap by 5 percent to £1928. Millions continue to struggle balancing the rising costs, with figures showing that energy bills have almost doubled since January 2021.

A recent report from Citizen’s Advice estimates that over 2 million people will be disconnected from their energy this winter over an inability to pay their bills. The charity says energy debt has become the most common form of debt their advisers support people with, while official statistics show the number of households failing to pay energy bills jumped by 39 percent in the past year.

Citizens Advice chief executive Dame Clare Moriarty said: “Record numbers are in debt to their supplier and millions with a prepayment meter are too often going without heating and hot meals because they can’t afford to top up”.

Here are some tips to keep your energy bills down during colder months, and what options are available to you if you’re struggling.

How to keep energy bills down

Using less energy (if you can)

If you’re not already using as little energy as possible, and are starting to feel the pinch, it may be worth assessing if you can cut your energy usage anywhere. Little changes like turning your thermostat down by one degrees, turning off heating in rooms you’re not using, and reducing the upper temperature limit on your boiler’s hot water settings, can all save hundreds a year.

Contact your supplier

Under Ofgem rules, your energy supplier is obligated to help you if you’re struggling to pay your bills. You can negotiate with them to arrange a new payment plan, payment breaks, reduced payments, more time to pay, or another solution. The help and advice providers will offer is decided on a case-by-case basis – so you’ll need to get in touch.

Hardship grants

Most big energy providers offer funds to help qualifying households pay their energy bills. To apply for this money, you must meet the exact eligibility requirements, which vary between providers. Generally, you will need to be a customer of the provider to apply for their hardship grant. However, the British Gas Energy Grant allows applications from customers of any supplier.

Household Support Fund

Your local council may be able to offer you support with energy bills, and other essential costs, through the ‘Household Support Fund’. Available funds and eligibility are decided by each local council, so you will need to look online or get in touch with them to find out more. Government funding for this scheme began in April 2023, and is set to last until the end of March 2024.

Check if you’re entitled to government support

The government runs a number of scheme to assist those struggling with heating costs during the winter months. The main three to be aware of are Cold Weather Payments, the Warm Home Discount, and Winter Fuel Payments. A recent study by Policy in Practice shows that £19 billion in government support goes unclaimed each year – and they have a handy calculator to help you make sure you know what you’re entitled to.

What to do if you can’t pay your energy bills

Check your direct debit

Your monthly payment will be an estimate based on your predicted energy use for the year. If this estimate is higher than the amount you actually use, your supplier may reduce your bill accordingly. You can also request a flexible direct debit where you only pay for what you actually use. To do this you must submit your meter readings manually, or install a smart meter.

Pay what you can

If you are satisfied the amount you pay every month accurately reflects your energy consumption, and still can’t pay, you can ask your supplier to be put on an ‘able to pay plan’. This means you will still pay something each month, below the actual amount, to prevent your arrears and debt from growing too large.

You may be put on a prepayment meter

If you are consistently unable to pay your energy bills, your supplier may be able to force you to go on to a prepayment meter. However, they must first get permission and a court order. Your supplier must first contact you at least 10 times before installing the meter, and conduct a ‘site welfare visit’. They also cannot install the meter if you are over 75, have certain health conditions, or have children under two.

This practice was temporarily banned in February 2023 after it was found British Gas was routinely sending debt collectors to break into people’s homes and install prepayment meters. Ofgem allowed it to begin again in April, subject to the new code of conduct.

Consider using a ‘warm space’

If you find you are living in a cold home and are unable to heat yourself, consider seeking out a local warm space where you can keep out of the cold. Hosted by local organisations and churches, these spaces will provide a welcoming environment for you to spend some time if you need to. Warm Welcome offers an online service to find a space near you.

Will energy bills ever go down?

While the energy price cap saw an unwelcome rise at the start of 2024, it is forecast to fall again in April. Analysts at the trusted Cornwall Insight predict the cap will fall in April to £1,660, and again in July to £1,590, before rising again to £1,639.97 in the final months of 2024.

However, Citizens Advice suggests this may not be enough. While the reduction could save households around £25 a month, energy costs will remain 40 percent higher than they were in 2021. Factors such as benefits not uprating in line with rising costs, the end of the government’s cost of living payments, and accumulated energy debt will all contribute to more struggles to come for those on low-incomes.