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February 20, 2012, Monday

The fuel poverty trap

How much do you think is a reasonable amount to have to pay for winter heating?

It’s a question I’ve been asking myself ever since a conversation last week with a Kars restaurateur who told me that many people in his part of the northeast of the country expect to get through around TL 4,000’s worth of coal over the winter.

If that’s true, it’s quite a staggering sum. Even allowing for a bit of exaggeration to lend color to his story, I assume that means that many people are forking out around TL 3,000 just to keep themselves from freezing.

So now I’ve run a rough tally of my own winter fuel bill. This year I reckon I will have paid out about TL 1,700-1,800 for electricity to get from November to the start of April, the months when I need to have my central heating on. That sum includes the cost of hot water since I have a nifty electric combi system that fires both my radiators and the water heater.

In the UK, people are said to be living in fuel poverty if more than 10 percent of their income is going to heating. By that criterion I’m hardly a pauper, although all those wretched people in Kars surely would be. But before I start cheering I have to remind myself that only my kitchen radiator is kept on for about half of every day. The one in the bedroom only goes on for an hour before bedtime and a couple of hours in the morning. The towel rail in the bathroom stays on for about half the day. All the other radiators are kept firmly switched off since I realized early in my life here that to have them on would speedily bankrupt me. Instead, I make do with more versatile electric fires that provide more focused warmth.

I suspect that this is a familiar pattern for all but the most well-heeled in Turkey -- heating one’s home with an eye to the potential bills at all times.

Of course the overwhelming majority of my neighbors still depend on wood-and-coal-burning stoves. Doğal gaz (natural gas) is now available in Avanos and Nevşehir. In Göreme, though, not even the businesses in the village center, where the ground is level and not riddled with caves, have been connected to the grid. Few of my neighbors could afford to have central heating installed in their homes, and they’re all convinced that the cost of electric heating would be prohibitive. My grip on math is not the best. Even so, my ready reckoner suggests that most of them are spending as much on coal to get them through the cold months as I do on electricity. And that’s despite the fact that most of them buy it in May and pay in installments to get the cheapest deals.

I’m surprised there isn’t more complaint about the cost of winter heating. People just seem resigned to watching huge amounts of their sometimes meager incomes quite literally going up in smoke. I come from a country where people like to make their voices heard. That said, fuel prices have been soaring in the UK, too, and this winter I wouldn’t mind betting that even more people will fall into the fuel poverty trap, just like my neighbors.

Pat Yale lives in a restored cave-house in Göreme in Cappadocia.

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