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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

Whingeing and preaching

In his book The Culture of Complaint (1993), the Australian critic Robert Hughes brilliantly attacked a divisive trend: approaching politics as a plaintiff or a supplicant victim. Consumer complaints about energy utilities were not among Hughes’ chosen targets. Nevertheless, he implicitly anticipated how in 1998 complaining about utilities became institutionalised. In New South Wales, Australia, six electricity suppliers and one transmission company set up an Ombudsman to handle complaints. The following year, Britain’s Office of Gas and Electricity Markets (OFGEM) was formed. Today, it declares the protection of consumers its 'first priority'. In 2000, too, the British government also established Energywatch, a watchdog whose mission was ‘to get the best deal we can for energy consumers’.

Posturing politicians like to present the consumer as vulnerable to rapacious energy utilities, always out to rip people off on prices and skimp on customer service. The truth about energy today, however, is a little more complicated.

Take the fashionable concept of 'energy services'. Here, the supply of power and heat to a home or organisation is nothing compared to the multi-faceted service relationships that electricity and gas utilities now want with their customers. Forget kilowatts and kilojoules; think billing, call centres, web sites and IT systems for customer relationship management. Utilities now believe that their task is to increase customer loyalty, stop customers defecting to other suppliers (‘churn’), flaunt Green credentials, and build trust – not just with consumers, but also with state regulators.

Energy innovation has now been largely reduced to... discounts for use at weekends. In energy services, the ghost of Enron lives on. It’s possible to be in the virtual, financial energy business more than in real energy supply.

Meanwhile, governments preach the red herring of conservation.

“Only in today’s dumbed-down society can metaphors successfully pass as theories”

In the summer of 2008, the UK householder’s bill for energy topped around £1300 – high not just for the poor, but for middle-class homeowners too. In the autumn of the same year, Gordon Brown announced a £1bn initiative for conservation measures, including insulation. But the problem is that going Green in home energy means more than just adding insulation. To maximise energy efficiency means redesigning complete building envelopes to incorporate heat recovery through mechanical ventilation systems. In practice, that would require making houses with integral air-conditioning, or ‘active houses’.

People are right to suspect that insulation - like the microgeneration of electricity from people's homes - may turn out to be a fool’s errand. No wonder the government finds them ‘reluctant’ to change their behaviour, even when it insists that efficiency measures are ‘demonstrably cost effective’.

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