Ofgem’s proposed new charging regime for electricity networks hit the headlines this month because it suggested that electric vehicle users might be asked to pay more if they want to be guaranteed the right to charge the vehicle at peak times.
Well, that doesn’t seem unreasonable. Car drivers are used to making decisions about refuelling – whether to top up now, or wait until you are off the motorway, for example, and after all – cars are mobile. Most users will have options to charge at other times, to trickle charge overnight or to move the car to another charging point (I’m assuming we’ll have a lot of charging points by then).
More concerning is what lies behind this solution to accommodating EV charging and many other uses of our local networks. Ofgem proposes that there be a level of ‘core use’, above which consumers can decide whether to have a bigger connection, or a more reliable one, or a connection that allows them to use it at peak times.
First, who decides what is ‘core use’? If it is set low, then we can all smile about well-off consumers who have to pay more to heat the swimming pool. But as we know from years of work on fuel poverty, those are the people who have a choice. What about those in stubbornly energy inefficient properties who have to pay much more to get a minimal level of heat? Or those whose appliances are out of date and inefficient and used badly? Or those who are off the gas network and can’t switch out of high electricity usage?
Second, who decides what type of connection to fund? An unscrupulous landlord might take a Ryanair approach to their tenants, buying the bare minumum no matter what the needs of the tenant. A really unscrupulous one might trade away reliability and capacity as well.
New Power speculated two years ago about the types of electricity customers we might see in 2030 and it seems we are heading in that direction.
That’s not to say Ofgem is wrong about the fact that we need to prepare to share the network in a different way, or even about whether this is the best option. Maybe it is.
It does mean that ‘core’ use can’t be considered as a single number or a single solution across consumers. It has to be closely linked to their circumstances, with very strong protection against third parties who can gain control over consumers’ choices.
That means it can’t be left to the electricity industry – even though the industry has spent years and done great work reducing its rate of disconnection.
People don’t always interact directly with their supplier. There are still many people who ‘self disconnect’ by not feeding the meter when they are short of money.
If this is to go ahead it has many dangers for the fuel poor and those who have limited choices on where to live and how to spend their money.
Consumer protection and advocacy has to be there from the start – and stay there, because this will be a moving target.