‘I’m scared’: Prepaid meter users feel early impact of price hike | Energy bills

AAmid Britain’s highest inflation for 30 years and a cost of living crisis, some people who pay for their energy use through direct debt may not feel the 54% rise in the price cap until until their next bill arrives.

However, for the 4.5 million people using prepaid meters, the impact of the April 1 rise is already being felt. They also face a higher annual price cap for average usage of £2,017 instead of £1,971 for those paying by monthly direct debit.

Prepayment meters ‘trap people in energy poverty’ by charging above-average tariffs, says to research by the charity Church Action on Poverty. Low-income households make up the majority of users and the huge rise has raised fears that more people will be forced to choose between food and fuel as poorer families spend a greater proportion of their income on fuel. energy.

The government has come under fire in recent weeks for not doing enough to support households about to be hammered by the rise. Analysis from consultancy firm Cornwall Insight estimates the cap could be raised later this year to £2,600.

The Guardian spoke to four people with prepaid meters about what rising prices mean for them.

“When the meter runs out, you try to live when the sun is up”

Tim Hooper, 50, said he feared he would run out of power from his prepaid meter after the price hike and run out of electricity and gas. Photography: Tim Hooper

Tim Hooper, 50, Norfolk

When Tim Hooper moved into a housing association property in Norfolk in 2019, it seemed like a new chapter after two years in hostels. However, because he accepted a debt relief order while homeless, he was unable to get an energy contract and has to use a prepaid meter.

After the energy price cap rose, the 50-year-old says he now expects to spend around £32 a week of his £325 monthly universal credit on energy costs, or almost £40 % of income after housing costs. Until this month he was paying around £22 a week.

“I’m really, really scared,” he said. “There were times when I ran out of credit on my meter and just had to sit in the dark and I’m afraid it’s going to happen more often…You try to live when the sun is up.”

Tim Hooper's prepaid energy meter.
Tim Hooper’s prepaid energy meter. Photography: Tim Hooper

It was ‘a real kick in the teeth’ when the government scrapped the £20 [universal credit] uprising, Hooper said. “With people like the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, they are so disconnected. It’s not because they don’t know what low-income people go through – they don’t care.

“I thought I would leave heating worries behind me when I stopped being a student”

Emma Rehling, 32, Tower Hamlets

For Emma Rehling, who owns and partly rents an apartment in Tower Hamlets, east London, petrol prices have more than doubled. The 32-year-old, who lives alone and works in communications, says the amount she tops up her meter has risen from around £30 a month to £70, even after reducing her usage slightly.

Because his building has a communal boiler – which also serves a local school and mosque – occupants are charged a commercial rate for their prepaid meter, making Rehling one of 500,000 people who lose protections consumers such as price caps.

Emma Rehling's prepaid energy meter for her flat in Tower Hamlets.
Emma Rehling’s prepaid energy meter for her flat in Tower Hamlets. Photography: Emma Rehling

Its communal boiler tariff exploded in February by nearly 250 per cent, from 4.05p to 13.94 per kilowatt hour, according to documents seen by the Guardian show. Electricity for each apartment is not shared.

“It’s the little things, I thought I’d leave the worries of turning on the heating behind as a student, but I’m still in my 30s and still worry,” she says. “I’m lucky because I live alone, and it’s much worse for families. But also, I have no one to rely on.

Rehling says the situation has led to anxiety about the future because saving up for emergencies is impossible. “All my salary is gone at the end of each month. It’s really depressing.

“I try to live on £1 of food a day, but there’s nothing left to cut”

Ben, 47, Birmingham

Ben, a 47-year-old from Birmingham, has seen his electricity and gas increase by around £250 a year, according to estimates from his energy supplier seen by the Guardian. His permanent charge has also increased to around 90 pence a day. “So I’m paying over £300 a year before I’ve even turned on the light,” he says.

The increases weigh on his shoulders another cost of living expense, which he says he will struggle to cover with his job and disability allowance. “I try to spend £1 on food a day,” he says, relying on anti-food waste apps and buying discounted yellow sticker items.

Ben, who asked that his full name be withheld because he doesn’t want his friends “to know how bad it is”, said the threat of another price cap hike on the energy later this year looms ominously.

“Once you cut back on everything you can – when you’re spending £1 on food a day and you’re not even taking the bus anymore – how are you going to cut back again? There’s nothing left to cut.”

“Everything goes up, it looks like the walls are closing in”

Zoe Woodward's electricity rate is set to rise 44%.
Zoe Woodward’s electricity rate is set to rise 44%. Photography: Zoe Woodward

Zoe Woodward, 30 years old, south east london

Anticipating price hikes to come, Zoe Woodward, a 30-something from south-east London working at a university, set to relish her old fare. Its electricity tariff jumps 44% from 20.4p to 29.4pa kWh, according to documents, and its gas tariff jumps 82% from 4.1p to 7.5pa kWh.

“We bought some reserve when rates were even lower,” she says. Typically, Woodward would top up £40 in total for her electricity and gas meters – to cover up to two weeks of costs in the one-bedroom apartment she rents with her partner – but she plugged in 120 £ before the hike to save money.

Zoe Woodward's prepaid gas meter.
Zoe Woodward’s prepaid gas meter. “It’s a scary time,” she said. Photography: Zoe Woodward

“We’re lucky to be able to suddenly buy a lot more energy,” she says. “But it’s a scary time, everywhere you look there are headlines about housing, bills, food and travel costs rising, it can feel overwhelming.”

The Woodward landlord is also raising the rent by £75 next month. “I feel like the walls are closing in. I’m not sure you can print what I would say to the Prime Minister or the Chancellor. They could do so much more.