Getting warmer in the community

The CBL team headed up by Chris Pomfret

The CBL team headed up by Chris Pomfret

Having spent several years as a sustainability consultant in the States, CBL’s Chris Pomfret found himself unexpectedly back in an Oxfordshire village of oil users, caring for his disabled mother

Surprised to see three tankers from three different suppliers delivering oil at the same time, Chris was inspired to draw the village community closer together and Community Buying unLimited (CBL) was born.

“Something magical happens when people join together. There’s a sense of community and inclusion,” explained Chris. “I wanted to create something unique.” Although initially difficult to get the scheme going, persistence paid off.

Forming local partnerships

Collaborating with housing associations, parish councils, community groups and Rural Community Councils (RCC), the scheme was able to get off the ground. Currently CBL works with 22 of the 37 RCCs across the country.

Oxfordshire RCC was highly instrumental in getting others involved. Chief executive, Linda Watson explains: “We’d been thinking that if small local groups syndicated into something bigger, they’d increase buying power. By chance that’s when Chris came to see me. His village oil buying scheme had spread across North Oxfordshire. Borrowing his business model, we started the scheme in November 2010, using our long track record and extensive reach into communities to promote it.

“We agreed it would be appropriate for us to build the scheme around local community coordinators, who get membership free of charge. In Oxon we now have 40 coordinators covering 86 communities.

“Within three months colleague RCCs were asking questions – six months later we’d developed a franchise offer, now taken up by 21 other counties. In Oxfordshire alone we have over 1000 members, who pay £24 per annum.

“From day one, we’ve been convinced that this scheme not only helps members save money, but also reduces the carbon footprint of deliveries. As an organisation that cares about environmental sustainability, we’d prefer not to be running an oil scheme – but for off-gas rural communities, oil heating is a fact of life.”

Changing buying and supplying behaviour

Currently there are over 9000 households and businesses buying oil through CBL. Feedback from satisfied customers has been extremely encouraging.

“We avoid submitting orders in December and spread buying across 11 months, especially over the summer. This January alone, we placed orders totalling over 1.9 million litres.”

“On the distributor side, perceptions have changed,” says Chris. Fuel Supply Solutions consultant, Keith Guppy, is working with Chris to help him better understand the distributor market and build a new buying model.

“Viewed by some as the Antichrist, many thought Chris was simply driving down prices and forcing them to lose contact with individual customers,” said Keith. “Not so, CBL actually wants to make a fairer market which is ultimately more sustainable. It’s developing better relationships with suppliers and encouraging people to change the way they buy heating oil. CBL believes suppliers can make more money by delivering smarter,” said Keith.

“As changes are implemented, bulk orders through CBL will result in distributors actually saving 1.5% on each individual card payment,” added Chris. “Keith wouldn’t be working with us if he didn’t see benefits for the industry. He’s helping set up an electronic purse so that customers can pay CBL by Paypal and spread payments across the year.”

CBL now places orders with more than 40 fuel suppliers. Kevin Day, business development manager at Barton Petroleum commented:

“Since our initial meeting in February 2010, I feel Chris now has a far better appreciation of the operational issues and difficulties faced by fuel distributors. Our dialogue has led to a realisation that cooperation and a willingness to work together is more productive for both parties. We’re always looking at ways to improve service and to help customers cope with higher energy costs. The industry does need to do more to help alleviate fuel poverty and we’re happy to be a supplier to CBL.”

Another supplier told us: “We’ve done some business with CBL this winter.  They provide very comprehensive information, customers ring promptly with payment, and there’s a reasonable delivery window.”

Gaining oil buying intelligence to help those in fuel poverty

CBL is behind an initiative to expand the use of smart meters. “It’s a major problem when people don’t know what’s in their tank, so making a tank smarter makes sense,” said Chris.

A mini version of the industrial sized smart meters used extensively in Africa and India has been created incorporating an electronic dipstick which sends users an update every two days.

Currently a group of 50 householders are piloting the scheme. “Early results show huge potential as people better understand the big green thing at the end of their garden,” said Chris.

Deeply concerned about fuel poverty, Cottsway Housing Association in West Oxfordshire is also involved. The Association has purchased a number of CBL’s smart meters for its most vulnerable tenants. In return CBL has developed a community oil fund that purchases oil on behalf of Cottsway’s tenants. The smart meters inform CBL of oil used, with tenants able to pay for oil as used. “Cottsway has shown real vision – we believe this is the first pay as you go oil system of its kind – and a solution to an issue that the heating oil industry has never been able to solve for itself,” said Chris.

Barton Petroleum is also supporting the use of smart meters. Kevin explains: “We’re constantly looking at ways to keep distribution costs to a minimum and recognise the pressure from government to help our customers reduce CO2 emissions. We’re hoping to work closely with CBL to promote this smart meter. Customers will be able to see how much fuel they’re using and it’ll help reduce emergency deliveries.”

CBL members are also benefiting from the government’s ECO (Energy Company Obligation) initiative. CBL has direct access to a fund to facilitate the installation of energy efficiency measures into off-grid homes – including free boiler replacements for the oldest most energy inefficient boilers. “A massive development for us and one on which we’d like to work even more closely with suppliers to help them help their customers,” said Chris.

Now in its fourth winter, CBL continues to buy communal oil, rock salt and even iPads. Mains gas and electricity are on the horizon, but it is in the immediate future that Chris believes those working with CBL can increase profits, reduce fuel poverty and lower their carbon footprint.

Share your thoughts on community buying with liz@fueloilnews.co.uk

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