My mother used to tell me a story of how, when she was child during the Great Depression, a well-spoken, respectable-looking man and his little girl, about her age, used to come to the kitchen door of their house in Montreal every week and collect old newspapers and the stubs of candles from her mother.
These he would roll tightly, he explained, with the wax melted between the newspaper sheets, bundle them together into bigger rolls and use as fuel in their stove in their rented flat. She remembered this man in particular, “because he looked and sounded like my own father” – in other words, a man her father could have been if he too had lost his job and had to resort to seeking out the kindness and charity of strangers.
This current economic depression is different in many ways to the one in the 1930s: There was no state unemployment benefit back or supplementary welfare payments to help meet his heating bill (or rent). There was only charity, and not always enough of that to ensure that everyone come through those long, cold, hungry “Ten Lost Years” in Canada. (Which is also the title of a wonderful book about the Canadian depression by writer Barry Broadfoot.)
People may not be starving or freezing to death in this fourth year of our Great Recession as many Irish people now call it, but according to the Society of St Vincent de Paul spokesperson John Mark McCafferty, the charity spent just under €3.4 million in 2007 on fuel costs, which then rose to €8.8 million in 2010 (the last year in which statistics are available). That bill will no doubt be much higher for 2011-12 after Bord Gais’ price hike of 22% a year ago and the 8.5% price hike it has just had approved by the energy regulator in the coming year.
Electricity prices are expected to go up by at least 5% due to the gas price hike, says Simon Moynihan of www.bonkers.ie, the price comparison website that monitors all energy prices. This is because a considerable amount of Irish electricity is generated from gas-fired stations.
Meanwhile, the National Consumer Association has just published a survey on the cost of supply and delivery of 1,000 litres of home heating oil, based on quotes from 24 areas around the country. The average price nationally was €964 with the highest price recorded in East Galway at €995 and the cheapest in Dundalk at €910. Kerry, Sligo and Ennis, County Clare, also recorded the lowest price variations. (This is also not far off what the average gas bill will be in 2012-2013, says bonkers.ie.)
A quarter of the areas surveyed had price variations of €40 or more between the lowest and highest quote. Prices in 50% of the areas had price variations from €20 to €40.
Much of this year’s big price rise for gas (and soon electricity) is because the euro/sterling weakness of around 11% so far this year is forcing up the price of our gas imports from the UK. There is nothing we can do about that.
But both Simon Moynihan and the National Consumer Association still recommend shopping around for the best gas/electricity tariff from the other energy providers and for home heating oil – the latter by calling distributors outside your area to see whether they will deliver to your home at the same lower cost.
Cutting your fuel bill otherwise is all about conservation and keeping your boilers in good repair (replacing and old boiler costs money of course, but can save €250 a year in fuel use). Turning off lights when a room is not in use, using long-life bulbs and turning off electrical equipment (such as TVs and computers) will cut your bills by 10% to 20%, according to Electricity Ireland.
Open fireplaces, draughty doors and windows are all black spots for heat loss. On my street of old Victorian terraced houses in Dublin, the neighbours who haven’t made an effort to cut heat loss, by super-lagging their attics, double- and triple-glazing the windows, stopping up the open fireplaces in these houses and properly insulating the walls and floors, either have spectacularly high heating bills or are the ones who heat one occupied room, keep heavy shutters and curtains closed a lot, keep the snake draught excluder manufacturers in business and wear a lot of woollies in the winter. (I’m embarrassed to say that we fall somewhere in the middle.)
I’m grateful that we can manage to pay our heat bill, but many people can’t. Before they go cold, or end up sitting in the dark (or staying in bed under a pile of duvets) – even after doing everything they can to cut the cost of their bill – it would be nice to think that their loved ones or good neighbours who have an ark under construction (see previous articles) will help them out, especially since state assistance will be increasingly limited as the Great Recession ploughs on.
The wonderful “V de P” will, of course, do what they can. They’ll do even more if you can manage to send them a donation (see www.svp.ie).