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'Fuel poor' heat homes with fires as oil too costly

Budget-hit families have seized on the mild winter and not filled up their oil tanks to save money -- returning to solid fuels like coal and briquettes to heat their home one night at a time.

The Society of St Vincent De Paul is increasingly worried about the "fuel poor" who can no longer afford to pay up to €800 to fill their tank with oil.

A spokesman told the Sunday Independent that last year the society spent €7m helping people with their energy bills and debts and were budgeting that the figure would increase this year.

It comes as the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) is compiling new figures on the number of households cut off by the major energy suppliers, including the ESB and Bord Gais, which will show the number of disconnections in the latter half of last year.

All the major energy suppliers now have a policy of no disconnections over the Christmas and new year period.

But as the Budget cuts bite there are fears that many people will no longer be able to pay basic utility bills in the first months of 2012.

Figures compiled by the CER show that 11,773 customers had their electricity cut off between January and August 2011 -- 81 per cent of them domestic customers.

Gas was disconnected to 3,516 customers in the first eight months of last year -- 84 per cent of them households.

The impact of the downturn on ordinary families unable to afford the basics is starkly illustrated by CER statistics on disconnections. In March 2007 the major electricity suppliers, which includes the ESB, cut off 759 customers.

In July 2010 -- the peak of electricity disconnections -- 2,353 customers had their power cut off. The following month, there were 2,118 disconnections.

It means that in just 60 days, 4,472 customers had their lights switched off.

Since then the trend in relation to disconnections has been marginally downward, though there were still 2,065 electricity disconnections and 836 gas disconnections last August.

The Society of St Vincent De Paul has consistently warned about the emergence of "fuel-poor" families since the recession began.

It claims many people simply cannot find the money to pay a gas bill or pay upwards of €800 to buy a tank of heating oil.

"For these people solid fuel is the fuel of last resort. It is the only affordable and available means of heating their homes," SVP says.

Michael Leahy of the Solid Fuel Trade Group (SFTG), which represents suppliers of traditional fuels like coal and briquettes, says many SFTG members are seeing signs of increased desperation around the country.

"People have already fallen back on solid fuel as the only affordable means of heating their homes," he says.

Mr Leahy told the Sunday Independent: "The indications that people who cannot afford a fill of oil are switching back to solid fuel have been there for the last 12 months, but because of the very harsh winter last year we felt that maybe the figures were a bit skewed. But this year, during a very mild winter we have seen more and more people using coal and briquettes. We believe it is because they cannot afford to pay €800 to €900 to fill their tank," he said.

"People are buying a fire for the night with a bale of briquettes, and they can get a few nights from a bag of coal. Solid fuel prices have actually gone down a bit this year -- a reflection of the international commodity prices in a highly competitive market.

"When you see all these bank lay-offs now and the economic situation you have people who were accustomed to a good style of life who are now in a situation where both are out of a job and they maybe have children at third level.

"Suddenly they are finding it difficult to finance their day-to-day living. They cannot pay out €900 to buy oil in a relatively mild winter -- especially when they believe they may not actually use it," he added.

Sunday Independent