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'We're saving money and my teenager is talking to me'

A general view of a household energy bill displayed on a mobile phone held next to a gas hob - Yui Mok/PA Wire
A general view of a household energy bill displayed on a mobile phone held next to a gas hob - Yui Mok/PA Wire

Convincing a teenager with access to the internet to sit around a table and play a board game might seem like a Herculean task for some families. But for Caroline Michelle, the solution was simple: turn off all the electricity.

With no lights, save for a few candles, and no TV, phones or no games consoles, the 15-year-old boy had no choice but to join Ms Michelle, 43, and her nine-year-old twins around the dining table for one hour.

“It’s actually been really lovely,” she said. “It’s facilitated talking in our household with our teenager.”

And there’s an added benefit of this family time: each hour shaves about £2.50 off their electricity bill.

Ms Michelle is taking part in the “Energy Saving Sessions” scheme run by Octopus Energy, which pays households that reduce their electricity usage in times of peak demand.

The idea behind it is to reduce strain on the National Grid, which is pushed closest to its limits between 5.30pm and 6.30pm when families typically cook dinner, put the kettle on, and wash clothes. The scheme encourages people to avoid doing these energy-intensive activities during this period with small payments, offsetting the cost of power they would use anyway.

The provider also incentivises households to cut their electricity usage more generally by offering “points” which can later be traded in for an energy rebate of sorts.

A spokesman for the company said the customers saved £4 to £5 on average over the course of the four hour-long sessions. The top 5pc of savers saved more than £19. The provider expects households to make up to £100 this winter by taking part.

Some 450,000 households have signed up to the scheme, and more than 250,000 took part in the trial.

For Ms Michelle, who lives in Hertfordshire and spoke using another name, the scheme offered her a chance to both save money and teach her children about the soaring cost of energy. “We made it into a game,” she explained. “It’s important that my children understand that energy is not endless and we all have a duty to save as much as possible.”

Ms Michelle’s family turned off all electrical appliances, save for essentials such as the fridge and the WiFi – required as the scheme hinges on having a smart meter – and over the four sessions she has learned just how much power is sucked away by so-called “vampire appliances” which waste electricity when in standby mode, such as TVs and ovens.

The self-imposed blackouts have also helped to reduce Ms Michelle’s children’s dependence on technology, and she said they would be “ready for the real thing” if threats of power cuts come to pass.

“There have been one or two sessions where we've not plugged everything back in afterwards,” she said. “There’s one TV in the house that’s been off for three weeks.”

‘My children are more aware of how much things cost’

Helen James, 42, also took the opportunity to take her family “back to the dark ages” in a bid to save money on energy.

Over the course of two sessions, she saved £8. Though there have only been four so far, Ms James estimated she could save around £120 a month by slashing her usage for an hour a day.

“It was almost like going back to our roots,” she said, using a pseudonym. “My children are now more aware of the cost of water, electricity and gas. They’ve realised it’s not free.”

Helen James - Lorne Campbell
Helen James - Lorne Campbell

Ms James admitted the sessions are more “inconvenient” for families – especially if children need feeding at a particular time. But for singletons or city workers, who might not have returned home by 6.30pm, the scheme offers a way to get paid for doing nothing at all.

Martin Young, of investment firm Investec, said the scheme “brought the concept of load-shifting into the public sphere” by incentivising households with cash rewards. “It’s important we have this sort of thing out there,” he said. “You want to move demand around during the course of the day.”

The scheme was made possible by the National Grid’s Demand Flexibility Service, which was launched last month. Mr Young said other providers would “inevitably” follow suit. Several other providers have already been approved to run similar schemes, and Shell Energy is already contacting customers to take part in theirs.