London, UK
Thomson Reuters Foundation

Maria Soria, 52, a hospitality worker living in west London, sought advice from a community energy group to save money on her utility bills, after struggling to keep up with payments in her new home during the coronavirus pandemic.

"For me it came as a surprise. I knew nothing about saving or managing my energy costs," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "Many times, energy companies misled me into paying more money than I could afford."

She received help to deal with those problems from social business CREW Energy, which was offering its services at a foodbank in her old south London neighbourhood.

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Alex Hartley, a director at CREW, poses for a photo with volunteers and energy cafe clients at Merton Library, south London, in November, 2019. PICTURE: Handout/CREW Energy

Founded by members of green group Friends of the Earth in 2014, CREW works with residents in three south London boroughs to find ways to reduce their household energy consumption, save money and boost green energy.

In line with Britain's binding target to cut its planet-warming emissions to net zero by 2050, CREW aims to help communities and individuals adopt low-carbon technologies.

"We have a climate emergency...We need to reduce our energy usage."

- Alex Hartley, a voluntary director at CREW.

Those include LED lighting and heat pumps that use electricity to heat homes more efficiently and with fewer emissions than gas or storage heaters.

"We have a climate emergency...We need to reduce our energy usage," said Alex Hartley, a voluntary director at CREW, which operates as a co-operative for community benefit.

With government attention focused on tackling the COVID-19 crisis, "we haven't got time to wait", she said, adding that fuel poverty and sustainable energy are "social justice issues".

Fuel poverty - where households have higher-than-average fuel costs that would push them below the poverty line if they spent that amount - affected 2.4 million households, or one in 10, in England in 2018, according to the latest government data.

Since 2018, CREW has delivered household energy advice workshops for community members, known as "energy cafes", in public spaces such as libraries, with funding from UK Power Networks, which runs electricity cables and lines in parts of England.

The free day-long sessions were held twice a week at several venues in south London, offering advice on how to equip homes to waste less energy and save on heating and electricity bills.

But this year, some of the sessions have moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The group also helps poorer households search for and secure grants from the government and other sources, enabling them to retrofit their homes with energy-saving technologies such as LED light bulbs, insulation and solar panels.

CREW also supports people to switch to greener power suppliers, where the offer is affordable for them.

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CREW Energy client, Maria Soria, poses for a photo with energy cafe manager, Katherin Garcia during a foodbank visit for the Latin American community in West Norwood, south London, in July, 2020. PICTURE: Handout/CREW Energy

Since the national lockdown, more Britons have expressed concern about falling behind on energy bills, according to a survey by government gas and electricity regulator Ofgem.

Between April and May this year, worries over energy bill affordability increased by five per cent among those surveyed, prompting just over one in five people to draw on emergency credit.

Katherin Garcia, an advisor and energy cafe manager, said that while many people are now struggling to pay their bills due to the financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, few know what energy solutions are available to them.

"The energy cafe sessions help give people a better understanding of how to change tariffs, cheaply retrofit their houses and save more money overall," she said by phone.

"At the same time, they're reducing energy wastage and protecting the environment."

Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit, a UK-based thinktank, said sectors that had taken the biggest economic hit from COVID-19, such as construction and manufacturing, are those with maximum potential for investing in energy efficiency.

"Most solutions to energy consumption and climate change have a local component and are about the choices you make as an individual," he said.

"Most solutions to energy consumption and climate change have a local component and are about the choices you make as an individual."

- Richard Black, director of the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

Home heating, for example, will need to go through a major transition in the next 20 years to reach net-zero carbon emissions, mainly by replacing gas boilers with insulation and heat pumps, he explained.

"That is something individuals can take advantage of now," he added. "When people make the transition to more energy-efficient home installations, they'll see more benefits...down the line."

CREW Energy plans to launch its first community energy share offer in October, allowing local residents to invest over a period of two to 20 years and offering a financial return.

The money raised will fund upfront capital costs to install air-source heat pumps at the Devas Club, a community centre and youth club in south London.

The pumps use electricity to extract heat from outside air and compress it to increase the air temperature for use indoors.

CREW said the pumps have the potential to cut carbon emissions by up to four times compared to regular boilers.

They will reduce spending on the centre's heating bills, freeing up funding for climate education and energy awareness work with youth.

"It's projects like [ours] that help reach...people who would otherwise be excluded from accessing support and assistance to have a cleaner, fairer energy deal," said Hartley.