Dark choice for off-grid families: pay £60,000 or use a torch – The Guardian

For England’s 2,000 homes without mains electricity, daily life is difficult but the cost of getting a connection is prohibitive
When Annette Walton wants to do some cooking on a winter evening, she straps on a head torch to guide herself around. In a home that does not have constant electric lighting, even simple chores are impossible without it.
Walton, 53, has lived in her home in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, since she was nine. It’s one of about 2,000 around the country that have never been connected to the electricity grid.
Instead, she relies on a generator, but the spiralling cost of even low-tax red diesel, averaging £1 a litre, means she can only afford to run it two hours a day. Generators can use about five litres an hour, so keeping the lights on in winter is an expensive business.
It is a common problem for those who live off-grid. Campaigners say many households have asked to be connected but have been handed bills of £60,000 or more by power distribution companies.
Christine Nicholls from Community Action Northumberland, which supports vulnerable people, says some children wash in streams because it’s easier than generating enough electricity for a shower.
“One householder has to refill her generator with diesel twice to have one bath. We have children coming home to a dark house and doing homework with head torches.”
There are 350 homes without mains electricity in Northumberland, and Nicholls has started a campaign, Powerless People, to help them. Many cannot use washing machines, hairdryers, power showers or freezers because they need more power than their generators can produce.
The 2,000 unconnected homes in England existed before electricity was rolled out. Some are in remote locations where cost prohibited them being connected; others are in national parks where overhead powerlines were not permitted; some were empty when the letters were sent out offering a connection.
Academic Paul Brassley, co-author of Transforming the Countryside: The Electrification of Rural Britain, says it was originally up to families to pay for the wiring inside the home, which would have deterred some poorer people. “It was mostly just for lighting … people didn’t have the same electrical requirements as now. At the start, profit was an issue. If you put out a mile of cable in a town you’re going to pick up, maybe, 100 customers. In the country, a mile of cable might only pick up one farm.”
Anne Hutchinson, 83, lives on a farm near Stonehaugh in the Northumberland national park. She first inquired about a connection in the 1960s, but even then it was too expensive. In 2000 she asked again and was quoted £160,000.
Her neighbour, Steve Batey, has become expert at maintaining his own generator and now runs a business fixing other people’s. “What really costs is if you don’t have batteries to store your electricity and you have to run the generator whenever you need power,” he says.
He and two neighbouring families were given a massive joint quote of £478,000 by Northern Powergrid almost 10 years ago because installing power lines would have involved cutting through part of Wark Forest.
Pensioner Brian Lawrenson applied to Northern Powergrid for a mains connection to his home in Catton, near Hexham. He lives 150 metres from where an overhead 20,000-volt cable terminates at a transformer, and was quoted £62,000 for an underground connection.
“I don’t want to pay about half the value of the house,” he says. “I think having electricity is a necessity, not a luxury. The power companies should cover it, or the government should put some money towards it.”
Single parent Sue Bridger was told it would cost £75,000 to connect her house near Haydon Bridge. “BT brought poles and connected me for £100 and yet Northern Powergrid gave me this ridiculous quote for the same location,” she says. “I can’t understand why water is seen as a necessity but power is not.”
Outside Newcastle, smallholder Clive Johnson already has electrical cables running over his land at Prudhoe. He was told 10 years ago it would cost £40,000 to connect mains electricity to his mobile home, despite being only 50 metres from the power supply for a housing development. “I’d never be able to pay that back,” says Johnson, 61, who runs an animal feed business and petting farm.
Ofgem says there is a charging formula, known as the Common Connection Charging Methodology (CCCM), and consumers who think they are being mischarged can ask for an investigation.
Northern Powergrid, the only distribution network operator in the north-east, says: “Costs are based on the most electrically viable, lowest-cost solution that meets the customer’s need. For off-grid properties, due to the nature of their location and complexity of connecting to our network, it can be more costly and, from an electrical connection perspective, more complex … Generally, underground connections are around three times the price of an overhead one.”
The Department for Energy Security and Net Zero says: “It is policy that customers requiring a new connection to the network are expected to pay for the associated costs, to ensure that other customers are treated fairly and do not fund network activities that are of no benefit to them.”
No government funding is available to help families pay.
The rest of the country was connected for nothing when rural electrification was rolled out in the 1950s, 60s and 70s. Most properties that missed out were either standing empty or in hard-to-access areas. In Northumberland, 85 of those are within the national park. Tony Gates, the park’s chief executive, says new connections are particularly difficult because of distances from the grid.
Liz Gray from the Rural Design Centre near Morpeth, which aims to tackle problems facing rural communities, says some properties are being assessed for renewable energy, such as wind or solar. “Money is the big barrier,” she says. “But there are some properties that will never be able to generate enough power” – such as those in the bottom of valleys.
Neil and Sarah Robson are tenant farmers outside Hexham and their home is powered by a wind turbine. Their generator kicks in when the wind doesn’t blow. It can take a day to do one load of washing because when the power supply falters, the washing machine stops. “Sometimes, we have to restart it 10 times a day,” says Sarah. “I would love to have mains electric. I’ve had enough of managing. I just want to be normal.”

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