Scottish Housing Day: The Rural Energy Crisis – Q&A with Energy Advisor, Donnie MacKay

From food to heating, cost of living is already disproportionately high in rural and island areas. As energy prices continue to soar, the outlook for rural communities is extremely concerning. Last year, on Scottish Housing Day, we shared two blogs which explored the reasons that rural homes are often far less energy efficient than those in urban areas and why it is difficult to change that.

This year, we spoke to Donnie MacKay, energy advisor for Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association to find out if there are any measures that those living in rural Scotland can take to mitigate rising bills. 

Navigating the different types of support can be overwhelming. Many people are unaware of government initiatives and can find them confusing, or don’t know if they are eligible. What is the first port of call for advice for both rural tenants and homeowners?

The single best place to begin is to telephone Home Energy Scotland. Their advisors offer free, impartial advice on energy saving, keeping warm at home, renewable energy, greener travel, cutting water waste and more. They are funded by the Scottish Government and managed by the Energy Saving Trust, and their goal is to help people in Scotland create warmer homes, reduce their bills and help tackle climate change.   

There are five Home Energy Scotland call centres in Scotland and all are contactable via a single Freephone telephone number 0808 808 2282. They can advise on a wide range of options for improving insulation, heating and draught protection. It is quite a long phone call so be prepared to answer questions about your home – its age, size, existing heating, existing insulation, and they will also want to know about the occupants. 

Some support schemes are means tested so they will want to know if anyone in the home receives any benefits, or are young or old. You should not presume in advance that they won’t be able to help – it is always worth making that call, and if you called in the past and they had little to offer – keep on phoning and keep on asking, as circumstances change, and support schemes change. 

Depending on eligibility and need there may be grant and/or interest free loan options. They can also advise you on any local authority area based schemes that are available, and they can signpost you for further support to any local advice service that might be working in your area. For any social housing or private tenant – ask your landlord for help. Social landlords in particular are obliged to deliver minimum energy efficiency standards, and new standards for private lets are imminent. For advice on the current energy price support schemes there is a good summary on the Money Advice Scotland website.

Could you please explain the roles of Home Energy Scotland, Warmworks and Warmer Homes Scotland?

Home Energy Scotland (HES) with its network of five call centres and its single Freephone number should be your first point of contact if you are looking to find solutions to improve the comfort, warmth and energy efficiency of your home. 

Warmer Homes Scotland is one of the major Scottish Government support schemes that can be accessed via (HES). It is principally designed to support homeowners, and particularly the most vulnerable households, to help ensure the delivery of affordable warmth, and it is means tested. 

Warmworks is the delivery agent for Warmer Homes Scotland and it is a joint venture partnership between the Energy Saving Trust, Changeworks and Everwarm.

Where would a rural homeowner or tenant start if they wanted to change to a better heating system, such as an air-source heat pump, or improve insulation?

The best place to start is with your own experience of what works and doesn’t work in your home. Are you warm on a cold winter’s day – do you have problems managing humidity, are your costs incredibly high and your outcomes poor? 

As an in-home energy advisor, I have a simple mantra for all households – tackle and understand the key five elements that together determine the likelihood of achieving affordable warmth – fabric, ventilation, heating, people and tariff.

Fabric – The number one rule of home energy efficiency is that your home should be wind and watertight with the fabric insulated in key places – external walls, floors, roofs – stop the wind and rain coming in and stop the heat from going out. Lofts for example should have a sea of insulation on the loft floor 1 ft deep.

Ventilation  – Seal the bad ventilation (the draughts) and encourage the good ventilation that gives you good air quality and well managed humidity.

Heating – Be in charge of your heating system and understand it – don’t let it be in charge of you. Use thermostats and controls well –don’t overheat – have good heat zone management

People – Our behaviours have huge impact. Heat and energy is expensive so use and manage it well – create your own management regime – understand the importance of humidity management  and zone control

Tariff – Buy your fuel (all fuels) from the cheapest provider

Having done your own home audit against these principles, find out what support schemes are available nationally and locally via Home Energy Scotland and the Energy Savings Trust websites. If you live in a traditional home, look at all of the case studies that Historic Environment Scotland have published – they have a wide range of useful online publications.

Many homes will also have an Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) that details a range of potential improvements. If you have mislaid your existing EPC you can download a copy from the Scottish EPC Register

Also of major importance for pensioners is to check if you might qualify for Pension Credit. Pension Credit is known as a passport benefit and if you receive it – it opens the doors to other benefits. It is estimated that many hundreds of thousands of eligible households have not claimed it.

Where government support isn’t available, what low-cost steps can people take to reduce energy bills themselves?

  • Be proactive and be in charge – create your own winter plan – we all consume half of all of our annual energy in the coldest four months of the year
  • Take meter readings every week and ensure you are being billed on accurate usage – not estimates.
  • Get very fussy and be annoying to yourself and others about preventing  energy wastage in the home – fuel is expensive so use it carefully.
  • Think of the five point challenge above and how your home rates against it.
  • If money is really tight, focus on creating one or two warm zones in a cool house.
  • Consciously winter-proof your home – thickest curtains and seal the draughts.

Many rural residents often feel sceptical towards government energy efficiency initiatives, as often they exclude rural and island areas. People are also often nervous about scams. What advice would you give anyone in a rural/island area to make sure they don’t fall for anything illegitimate?

It is generally a good rule to ignore all schemes that knock on your door or cold call you by telephone and seem to be offering an amazing deal. Far better to be proactive rather than reactive – assess your own needs first and then ask for help via Home Energy Scotland first or via a trusted local agency that works in your area. 

What sort of further government support do you think will be needed as the situation worsens?

The current financial packages are wholly insufficient to deal with the challenge. In particular those with complex health needs will need more specific and dedicated support. We believe that GPs and health professionals should be allowed to prescribe warmth. There is also a higher cost burden in off-gas UK where energy costs can easily be £1000 more per annum than the dual fuel cap levels. Dedicated support for electric heat, heating oil and LPG customers is needed.

Donnie Mackay is an in-home energy advisor on the Isle of Skye. The energy advice service, hosted by Lochalsh and Skye Housing Association supports all residents in Skye and Lochalsh.