Post-COVID boost for small businesses

The UK’s biggest electricity distributor has led the way in reaching out to support thousands of SMEs in the communities it serves to help combat the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Small businesses are at the heart of the UK’s economic recovery as COVID-19 restrictions ease this summer – and one utility firm is helping make the sector bounce back better.

UK Power Networks estimates there are more than two million Small to Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) across London, the East and South East where it delivers electricity, and staff have found new ways to help them overcome challenges which have intensified over the past year.

  • Electric vehicles: As part of its work with the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) and the Mayor of London’s EV Taskforce to support the wider move towards Net Zero, UK Power Networks engaged 1,200 SMEs and 88 representative bodies about Electric Vehicles.

Many wanted to make the switch to EVs but lacked the time and expertise to prepare – making them the most likely group to get left behind in the transition to low carbon.

The one thing most business owners wanted was a central, trusted source of real-life EV examples, to help them weigh up the costs, savings and practical implications. So in the run-up to the COP26 global climate conference, experts at UK Power Networks are collaborating in the Zero Carbon Business Partnership with the FSB, to develop a central online advice service packed with case studies, helping small businesses wishing to decarbonise.

  • Power supplies: The company was the first distribution network operator (DNO) to design a customer-driven definition of SME vulnerability. This means an SME business where a single power cut, even if short, has a significant impact on the lives and wellbeing of its customers and staff. It also covers small businesses who suffer a proportionally significant financial loss from a single power cut and those where the main point of contact has an impairment or communication need requiring adjustments to ensure all communication is accessible.

Power supplies are 99.9% reliable, but those businesses most at risk can now receive additional, tailored help if a power cut ever happens. More than 13,500 SMEs have signed up to the company’s Extra Care Register, which launched last year.

During the pandemic, UK Power Networks prioritised repairs for critical businesses providing essential services during a power outage. These included GP surgeries and COVID-19 testing and vaccination centres – by using more temporary generators and offering business owners updates by text message.

During 2020 the company also gave payment holidays to businesses which were due to pay for repairs, after damaging the network’s power cables.

Ian Cameron, head of customer service and innovation at UK Power Networks, says: “The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a host of significant new challenges for SMEs, and we were determined to ensure none of them were left behind as we build back better and support our communities to decarbonise.

“We are helping to enable the switch to EVs, and we recognised very quickly that the impact of any power cut on SMEs had increased hugely during any lockdowns and, even more so, in the periods they were able to start trading.

“Through our Extra Care Register and wider engagement we have worked closely with SMEs through online surveys and discussions to better understand what difficulties they face in the event of a power cut and how we can best tailor our support to meet their needs and deliver for them. It was action, not just talk.”

David Savage, managing director of Savage & Sons Electrical Ltd in Bedfordshire, says: “I’ve been thinking about switching to electric transport for years. I firmly believe it’s an important step and it’s only going to become more necessary in the future.

“For small companies to be interested in EVs, it is vital they understand the potential financial benefits and get extra support, especially during the challenges we are facing right now. It’s great to hear about projects like this aimed at helping companies like ours.”

Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) comments: “Small businesses are committed to sustainability, and a gradual, affordable move to electric vehicles will be an important step along this journey.

“It is very welcome that UK Power Networks gained a detailed understanding of their needs and the support which will be necessary both to help as many as possible transition to electric vehicles in the future where the available technology allows, and to make sure the infrastructure they will need alongside that will be provided.”

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