Friday, 24 August 2012
We could endlessly debate the merits of profit-making private energy suppliers versus the old system of public-sector gas and electricity boards. But we'd still be watching T.V. news stories about price increases.
The profits of the energy companies are the most obvious and visible aspect. The less obvious one is that the gas we use in our homes, and to fuel our power stations, is increasingly coming from abroad. The U.K. isn't self-sufficient in gas, even though we have all the North Sea oil and gas rigs. They can't meet the demand on their own, so the gas we use is being piped from further and further afield.
The longer the pipeline, the more it costs to operate and maintain it. Also, when you deal with overseas countries, you often deal in overseas currencies that can change in value - as you'll know if you've been abroad on holiday. More importantly, when the energy companies buy the gas, they're only a middleman. The foreign gas supplier can put their prices up when they want, and if the energy companies or their customers (that's you and me) aren't willing to pay the extra, then the supplier doesn't have to give it to us. But because there are limited places to obtain gas, the choice of alternative supplier is also limited.
Obviously, if the supplier's price is too high, then few energy companies would buy from them at all. But the point I'm trying to make is that your home energy supplier doesn't have as much influence on prices as you might think.
So the way to pay less for your household energy in the long term is to cut back on use. Changing supplier might also save you save you some money, but the wholesale price to your supplier will likely be the same, and it's the one thing you can't change.
You could also look at more efficient appliances when it comes time to buy replacements. For example, wood burning stoves are touted as a cheaper and more environmentally friendly alternative to a gas fire. We're still trying to figure out if a wood burner is cheaper overall though, as the cheapest log burner we can find is around £400, plus fitting and some necessary building works. When an electric fire costs around £100, and a basic electric heater is less than £20, then I'm not really sure which is the cheapest option overall. Will the increased cost of electricity outweigh the low purchase price? I don't know, but I think I'd need my calculator to work it out!
In the meantime, the cost of energy will increase, and unfortunately, none of us will have much choice but to carry on paying for it. The best we can do is try to use less, which will help the environment too.
Image: Gas Flame by George Shuklin, Public Domain. Obtained via http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gas_flame.jpg
Monday, 20 August 2012
No need to call Sherlock Holmes! It's just that this weekend's intended blog post didn't make it onto the site.
I had written most of an article, but got stuck while checking my facts. I'm a bit old fashioned that way - I don't like to publish something without being reasonably sure of what I'm saying. Five minutes of fact checking before publishing is far better than spending lots of time having to apologise and correct articles afterwards.
In the commercial news media, it seems there is an ever-increasing pressure to bypass the fact-checking stage. A friend, who was close to the industry for many years, tells me that checking facts means that there's a delay in getting the news out. In today's world of instant connectivity, this means that some other media outlet might break the news before you. And that costs money.
The same friend tells me that the professional journalists he knows are keen to check their facts. But, as the documentary film "Starsuckers" shows, journalists are not always given the time to check facts by their employer, due to commercial pressures to get the news out. Accuracy, it seems, doesn't sell half as well as a good headline.
And so, as old-fashioned as it may seem, my originally intended blog post has been sent back to the drawing board because of incorrect facts. But I hope you'll agree that it's better to have a missing post than a misleading post.
Friday, 10 August 2012
I eventually saw some smaller supermarkets in the suburbs, but they were a long way from the massive American-style retail parks common to the UK.
All became clear after a visit to a small town centre cafe, where I indulged in a capuccino and some people watching. I noticed that many locals came into town on their bicycles. They bought meat from the local butcher, bread from the local baker, vegetables from the greengrocer, and bumped into friends for a chat along the way. There was a small town centre supermarket, but it didn't have a car park. Again, most customers walked or cycled. There were no massive queues, no big car park traffic jams, and no-one losing their temper.
No, I hadn't fallen asleep and started dreaming. This was real. In some respects, it was like being transported back in time 30 years, to a time when the high street was the centre of retail trade in the UK. But it was also surprising that shopping in this way could still be an easy, stress-free experience - even with today's high-speed lifestyle, and even if you had to go to several shops just to get the basic essentials.
In the process of going into several independent shops on a regular basis, you'd meet several familiar faces. Those shop owners would get to know their customers personally, without needing a computer and a loyalty card to track their regular purchases. In turn, this seems to foster a sense of community. And that's an experience that the out-of-town megastores have difficulty matching.
In the process of demanding low prices and instant availability, I wonder if we've lost something quite important at the heart of our communities.
So shop local - maybe your community needs you!
Image: adapted from Maastricht Shopping Street by Redvers, Public Domain, obtained via http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maastricht-shopping-street.redvers.jpg (yes, I know Maastricht isn't in Belgium, but I am impressed that you're reading this bit at the bottom).
Saturday, 4 August 2012
Image: Martin Wiesheu
By the way, the same logic applies to bananas too. They may come from far away, but they usually arrive by boat.
Photo by Martin Wiesheu, CC-BY-SA licence, obtained via http://www.flickr.com/photos/49325640@N00/3768818