The lack of a credible plan to decarbonise the way homes and businesses are heated risks failing consumers and undermining public confidence, Citizens Advice has said.
More than five million homes could use heat networks – insulated pipes that take heat from a central source and deliver it to buildings – by 2050 as part of the UK’s efforts to cut climate emissions.
However Citizens Advice has warned that it is handling complaints such as high or incorrect back bills from the 2% of households who already use the unregulated networks.
The advisory service said billing errors were occurring because customers are not charged at regular intervals, while consumers were also confused about increasingly high standing charges and a lack of information about how their network operates, how their costs are calculated or where to turn to complain.
Despite the “immensity of the challenge”, there is no credible UK-wide strategy to achieve the government’s decarbonisation target of cutting emissions to zero by 2050, including how consumers will be protected as innovations are introduced and where the costs will fall, it warned.
The charity is calling on the Government to establish an independent commission to determine the fairest way to pay for the energy transition, including the shift to low-carbon heat, legislate to extend Ofgem’s powers to regulate heat networks and establish an independent consumer advocate for heat networks in the forthcoming Energy White Paper.
Citizens Advice chief executive Gillian Guy said: “The way we heat our homes needs to undergo a major transformation. How we manage that process, and fairly distribute the costs, needs the urgent attention of government.
“An independent commission is the only way to make sure the pathway to net zero is assessed in a rigorous, transparent and timely way.
“Consumers must be at the heart of the process, with the right protections built in for them now. We need to get these decisions right now to prevent the bad practice of today becoming the standard practice of tomorrow.”
Richard Neudegg, head of regulation at uSwitch.com, said: “The concept of district heating networks is sensible if we are ever going to reduce emissions from heating our homes. However, if households are locked in to just one provider they’ll have no escape route if they find they face higher prices.
“The Government’s Future Retail Energy Market Review should close the regulatory loopholes around district heating networks to ensure there are adequate consumer protections in place – as should be the case for any technology which will help reduce emissions from heating our homes.”