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Jenny Saunders | 12 Days of Christmas interviews

Cory Varney Cory Varney Writer
15th December 2017
Jenny Saunders | 12 Days of Christmas interviews

Our 12 Days of Christmas series is timed to coincide with issue 600 of Energy Spectrum, which will be published on our return from the Christmas Break. It commemorates 12 years of our weekly publication, which first debuted in 2005. It will offer perspectives from senior industry figures on the past 12 years and discussion on where the energy market could be heading.

Jenny Saunders is Chief Executive at NEA, while has also held a number of public advisory roles including those within government and the energy regulator. We are delighted to be able to publish this on Jenny’s last day in her role as Chief Executive of NEA and wish her the very best for the future.

Jenny spoke to Cornwall Insight on her career, how fuel poverty can be eradicated and reflected on her time with NEA ahead of leaving her role as Chief Executive.

Where were you in 2005?

I was Communications Director for NEA and leading the charity’s research, policy, business relations, membership and campaigns functions.

The UK was then seen to be more progressive than other countries in addressing fuel poverty. NEA was invited to join a European research team to look at the definition and nature of the problem across the EU states. I helped shape the design of the research, and we successfully bid for European funding. By the time we reported in full in 2009, we had an agreed a definition of energy poverty that could be applied by member states, an understanding of appropriate indicators of the problem, a set of recommendations to European and national decision makers, and had analysed data which revealed the scale of the problem -  around 50mn people in the EU unable to afford their energy bills and keep their homes warm.

In the last 12 years, what trend or development in the energy sector has most surprised you?

The growth in the number of small energy suppliers. With over 60 suppliers in the domestic supply sector, I am surprised that some people still say there is not enough competition.

What has most pleased you?

The way in which affordability of energy for all consumers, the merits of energy efficiency and the treatment of vulnerable customers are now embedded in policy thinking and the regulatory framework.

What has most disappointed you?

The end of government funding for energy efficiency schemes. In 2011, £350mn public funding was being spent on installing heating and insulation in the homes of people on low incomes in England. This all ended the following year, whilst the devolved nations continued support for their equivalent programmes. There has been a drop off of around 80% in insulation works being carried out since then, with the failure of the Green Deal and a reliance on the more regressive and commercially focussed ECO.

I am also disappointed that at times there have been unhelpful play offs between social, economic and environmental goals. There are of course some tensions, but it is clear that we need to design energy policies that have in-built equitable outcomes and project us much faster towards our decarbonisation targets.

What are you working on currently and how could it affect the industry?

I am trying to finalise a few areas of work before leaving NEA, but new things keep popping up that are exciting opportunities that I am keen to help kick off.

The main area of interest is how we decarbonise heat – to try to understand the social implications of how this might be done. This has so far been a neglected aspect of energy policy. And there is no one single route. I think most people now understand that installing heat pumps in 25mn properties is not the answer. A report which I commissioned Keith McLean and Maxine Frerk to write has shown there are a range of options for the government and energy sector.

Although I am leaving NEA, I am staying on the Committee on Fuel Poverty and the introduction of a vulnerability principle running right through the supply licence is something I want to look closely at, as well as the redesign of the energy suppliers’ Warm Homes Discount and Energy Company Obligation.

I am also joining a steering group for the Customer-led Systems Operator study being led by Newcastle and Bath Universities on behalf of Northern Powergrid. I see my role as ensuring the customer is a net beneficiary of any changes and that changes can have a progressive outcome.

How would you characterise the key energy policy challenges going forwards?

We need to ensure innovation is allowed to flourish but with billions being spent on R & D as part of the Industrial Strategy challenges, we need to keep a firm grasp on customer engagement.

Decarbonising heat is the biggest challenge in terms of household engagement, major infrastructure changes and decisions about how the cost burden will be met. And of course, refocussing on the benefits of energy efficiency, following the demise of Green Deal and after the Grenfell tragedy, will need considerable and careful thought and support right across the sector.

What New Year Resolutions do you feel are needed to make the sector a better place to work in and to better contribute to policy goals?

Front line customer advice services must be fully supported by the senior management teams and boards. I am impressed by the care taken by many advisors, in the contact centres that I have visited, to help customers through complex issues to do with metering, billing, power outages, payment methods, and debt.

The insights of these advisors should be tapped into and shared to help understand how customers can be treated fairly and are engaged to get the best standard of service.

Rewarding those who are providing good customer service and driving out poor standards will ultimately build more trust in the sector, make customers more satisfied, and reduce complaints.

What needs to be done to eradicate fuel poverty? Do you feel we’re on the right track?

The new definition of fuel poverty in England means that it will be very difficult to fully eradicate, as it is a relative concept, linked to income poverty, average housing standards and “reasonable” energy costs. However, the current strategy, with its emphasis on energy efficiency standards is the right approach. If we get housing energy performance up to current building standards, 95% of the current 2.5mn households in England will be lifted out of fuel poverty.

The devolved nations have indicated their intentions to review their strategies and approaches to fuel poverty and there is a wide spread recognition that energy efficiency is the sustainable solution. But in the short-term, rebates and income subsidies continue to be needed.

There are many households who are still unable to afford their heating who are living in relatively energy efficient homes – who are just too poor to afford the essentials, including energy. We need to be mindful not to create policies that exclude support to those households.

We are on the right track but some policy instruments must change, and we can’t do everything through supplier obligations. £14bn additional funding is needed to get us to the 2030 targets for England. This will mean enforcing the new minimum standards in the private rented sector and making finance available to the landlords; refocussing all of ECO and making energy efficiency a priority for the National Infrastructure Commission.

You helped to establish a grant-making fund to help women achieve their full potential and served on the Women’s Fund Committee. With regards to the energy sector specifically, how do you feel women are represented? Is there enough gender diversity? 

Women are better represented and more visible in the energy sector than when I started work at NEA in 1986. There are still, however, fewer women going into engineering than we need, and they are not in the most senior positions within the supply and network companies. Juliet Davenport is a notable exception.

At NEA, around 60% of our staff are women, with an equal balance on the senior team. Whilst we have family friendly policies, I recognise the day-to-day challenges of balancing childcare with work that still usually falls on women. I was fortunate to have a husband who was both willing and able to do more of our childcare, which enabled me to progress and spend time away from home that is a necessary part of my job. 

But I am not disappointed that my successor is a man. I was delighted at Adam Scorer’s appointment. He will do a great job.

What do you think the main focus of the 2020 Christmas issue of Energy Spectrum will be? Why?

I would love to see the positive headline that the Government has met its first fuel poverty milestone, but I fear it might be a less positive focus on why we haven’t met our smart meter roll out deadline. That would be a huge shame as we can see the positive response from people who have already had one fitted.

But of course, there is always something just out of sight that in three years’ time might warrant front cover status – see how battery storage and EV is dominating the agenda. Three years ago, many of those products were still at R and D stage. 

How do you reflect on your time with the NEA?

NEA shouldn’t need to exist, but it does, and it is needed now more than ever. The charity has had many successes but has so far failed in its core mission to ensure all households across the UK can afford the energy they need for health and comfort.

I joined as an Information Officer, writing newsletters, producing news releases and organising conferences and events. The first campaign I ran involved writing to all MPs inviting them to visit constituents who had received some basic loft insulation and draught-proofing via the local schemes we set up with community groups, trade unions, local authorities and using work experience programmes. 150 MPs replied and got involved that first year and it became an annual campaign which gained all party support and senior government endorsement and involvement including Prime Ministers, as well as Prince Charles who launched our Business Supporters Group, and quite a few celebrities such as Helen Mirren.

Everyone instinctively knows that it is wrong for people to live in cold homes and to lack the basic essentials of warmth and adequate food – so it isn’t difficult to win support for NEA’s cause. What has been harder is securing adequate resources and policy responses. The Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which I helped to promote in Parliament, provided the legislative framework which ensured successive governments have had to take action on fuel poverty. NEA has tried to help create effective delivery routes and has always recognised the vital importance of partnerships across the public, private and voluntary sectors. We have shared good practice, devised training qualifications to meet skills gaps, innovated to find new solutions.

Thank you to all of the companies and individuals within those companies that have supported NEA over the years. My plea as I leave NEA is that you continue to work constructively with NEA to help meet its social commitments and frame appropriate responses for customers. There is a lot more that needs to be done.

How does Energy Spectrum help you in your day to day work?

I read the daily updates as soon as they pop into my inbox. It’s a great way to stay tuned to what the immediate issues are that I may be asked to comment on or respond to.

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