How fighting energy poverty helps reduce social and spatial exclusion in cities

By Lidija Živčić, on April 4th, 2017

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Between 50 and 125 million EU citizens are estimated to be energy poor. The situation is even more severe in South East Europe, where in some areas 30% or more households are struggling with energy poverty.

What is energy poverty and who suffers from it?

Energy poverty happens when a household finds it difficult or impossible to afford its basic energy needs. It mostly affects low-income households – people who are retired, unemployed or poorly paid, dependent on social benefits. Their economic disadvantage is often matched with poor energy efficiency in their homes (poor insulation, outdated heating systems, expensive or polluting fuel). Not only that, but fuel-poor households are often socially isolated and lack support from others. They tend to be subjected to physical health risks, mental health risks, degradation of dwellings and excessive debt.

From poverty to pollution

Energy poverty is most likely to occur in urban areas with high unemployment and poverty. Interestingly, city development policies can sometimes leave the poorest parts of the population behind, and this leads to an increase in social and spatial segregation. One problem that must be addressed is this: energy-poor households tend to look for the cheapest available heating fuel, such as poor quality wood (wet, sometimes treated with chemicals) or coal. Burning either of these will result in high levels of air pollution, especially in terms of particle matter. And when fuel, be it wood or coal, is burned in old and inefficient boilers, it leads to even more pollution. This means that energy-poor households can not only affect their own health, but also the health of entire urban settlements.

The vicious cycle of energy poverty

The main needs of every household are sufficient warmth for health and enough energy to live comfortably. This is why it is hard to talk about contributing to energy efficiency in cities: it is often necessary to increase energy use in energy-poor dwellings in order to reach the temperatures that ensure a minimum level of well-being. However, in many cases improving well-being can be successfully combined with improving the energy efficiency of homes. For example, by changing the heating source and system or by insulating the building, homes become more energy efficient and more comfortable to live in.

What must be changed?

Estimates show that about 90% of social housing consists of buildings where many tenants live in energy poverty due to low incomes and energy inefficient buildings. Making buildings energy efficienct is one of the key solutions for social inclusion and the alleviation of energy poverty. With this in mind, it is vital that cities address the challenge of refurbishing their existing housing stock.

There are several measures or actions that cities can take to help energy-poor households. The first step is to identify and analyse the main causes of the problem. The next step is to shape different programmes to address energy poverty. These would most likely encompass the following measures:

  • replacement of the heating system and heating fuel;
  • deep renovation of buildings (changing the windows, insulating the building…);
  • replacement of household appliances (‘old for new’);
  • subsidies suitable and useful for energy-poor households (e.g. high financing rates, loans with no interest);
  • renovation of city-owned social housing in order to improve housing conditions;
  • low-cost energy efficiency and energy saving measures (efficient indoor lighting, draught-proofing doors and windows, reflective foils for radiators, thermometers, etc.).

Furthermore, financial support needs to be carefully designed. We are faced with a situation where the people in need of energy efficiency investments are those who cannot afford them. There is another problem for energy-poor households: most of the programmes for improving energy efficiency in buildings are based on tax incentives or advantageous loans, but the most marginalised groups cannot benefit even from these because of their low financial capacities. Hence the need for tailor-made financial support, such as subsidies with high financing rates or interest free loans. However, it must be stressed that financial support, such as the reduction of energy bills or payment of heating fuel, should be used as a measure after all cost-effective energy efficiency options have been implemented. Financial support should not be the first measure, as it does not generally contribute to improving overall quality of life and it does not promote rational energy use.

REACH: Reduce Energy use And Change Habits

When it comes to low-cost energy efficiency and energy saving measures, approaches like REACH project, Co-funded by the EU Intelligent Energy Europe Programme, can act as a first step towards reducing energy poverty in cities. The goal of REACH is to empower energy-poor households in Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia to save energy and water, while at the same time establishing energy poverty as an issue that demands tailor-made structural measures. In order to do this, REACH targets energy-poor households, local actors that can help address energy poverty (e.g. social support services, local authorities or schools), and local, national and EU level decision-makers.

REACH offers low-cost pragmatic solutions for energy poverty. The first step was to train 40 vocational school teachers and 200 students to perform energy audits in energy-poor households. This way the students gained precious practical experience but they also helped us in establishing a connection with the communities. They helped partners visit more than 1500 energy-poor households. They made simple energy audits, based on which they created tailor-made advice for households and delivered a package of energy and water-saving devices. Initial results show that on average, each household they visited can save over 60 EUR and over 240 kg of CO2 emissions every year.

Apart from practical savings, the partners have also motivated over 50 local actors to engage in and address the challenge of energy poverty. The partners have composed a set of policy recommendations specific to the South East Europe region, which they discussed with decision-makers in the European Parliament in June 2016. Thanks to advocacy work in Slovenia, REACH partners helped the government set up a national programme for households visits. Another important achievement is that since late 2015, REACH practices have been rolled out to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.

How can you help?

Should you wish to see how to analyse energy poverty at the local level; train vocational school professors and students or volunteers and unemployed people to perform energy audits; or engage decision-makers and local actors in designing structural solutions for energy poverty, please visit the REACH project website and feel welcome to use the project materials.


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