Friday, July 19, 2024

Should students pay directly for their energy?

Adrian Barber of Prefect Controls investigates shifting the responsibility for payment of energy bills.

Can over-consumption and anti-environmental practices in student accommodation be blamed on “all-inclusive rent” packages?

The inclusion of utilities has become standard practice for many providers and is popular with students. Marketing of rooms is easier and more attractive when fixed rents are offered, and occupants aren’t worried about finding money to pay the energy bill at the end of the month.

Surveys regularly return high scores regarding student concerns about sustainability. However, in the privacy of their rooms, their principles may be challenged if the choice between wearing a jumper or turning up the thermostat doesn’t impact their bank balance.

There is an opinion amongst some providers, particularly since the rapid rise in energy costs, that charging occupants by consumption should return. In an erratic market, passing on the energy costs relieves providers of price hike uncertainties. It could also be a valuable lesson for the energy consumers of the future – to be aware of costs!

We could see ‘no-frills’ accommodation providers emerging, like some well-known airlines. Where the headline rent is alluring, but when necessities such as heating is ‘added-on’, the offer is not so attractive.

Does this provide a potential for greater transparency, giving occupants a choice of how they spend their allowance? Or conversely the possibility of cold, uncomfortable rooms with potential health and structural issues caused by humidity and dampness.

A ‘fair usage policy’ is another approach that has been mooted. This is where an amount of energy is included in the rental, but an agreed rate is charged for consumption over and above. This would provide comfortable environments, mitigate issues arising from under-heating, and enable those wanting greater warmth to have it – but at their own expense.

Properties where residents are charged individually for their energy, require MID approved meters in each room (Measuring Instruments Directive MID 2014/32/EU). This approach would bring with it major installation undertakings and cost of retrofitting apparatus. Plus, the headache of administering the billing process.

Technological progress is heading towards individual measurement being viable, but what is the demand?

I am sure that students, probably in greater numbers than the wider population, are aware of why energy needs to be conserved. I’m also sure they aren’t flagrantly using it unnecessarily.

It’s the inadvertent wastage that requires attention.

If room by room measurement becomes feasible, incentives may be attractive.

Two alternatives sprang to mind: A rebate at the end of term as a reward for conscientious use could be welcomed by many. But this doesn’t remove the infrastructure and administration issue; Driving a behavioural change programme could yield results. But this would need to be repeated every year as a new cohort of residents moves in.

Accommodation providers know the proportion of income they allocate to energy. But changing their business model to reduce rents and then charge ‘add-ons’, is perhaps a step backwards.

Sufficient energy must be used to maintain comfort. Whoever it is that pays, the cost won’t be reduced! The key is not restricting consumption, it’s identifying unnecessarily used energy – In empty rooms; When thermostats are constantly at maximum; If heaters are on, and windows are open.

In these cases, ‘automating control’ significantly reduces energy input, and is perhaps a less challenging solution. I visited a building recently installed with automated central control. During the first year, the heating load of 400+ bedrooms has halved, saving close to £70K per year.

Energy isn’t being restricted; it’s simply not being used unnecessarily.

This article appeared in the June 2024 issue of Energy Manager magazine. Subscribe here.

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