Energy debates must not forget those less able to speak for themselves

Reflections from the 12th eceee summer study

As Colin Nolden mentioned in his post yesterday,four members of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand attended the eceee Summer Study held near Hyeres, south of France, during 1-6th June 2015. The bi-annual eceee’s Summer Study has been held since 1993 and it focuses on energy efficiency policy, research and implementation. The theme of the 12th eceee summer study was ‘First Fuel Now – Keeping energy efficiency at the top of the agenda’€.

During the week of presentations ranging from technological innovation to various aspects of policy, impact and evaluation, several presentations also focused on the role of consumers in the energy system. For example Eva Heiskanen from the University of Helsinki said in her talk that public engagement in low carbon energy system needs to address people both as consumers and citizens. Myself and Colin Nolden from CIED argued in our paper that there should be a more active role for consumers in low carbon energy systems. We gave an example of communities as ‘pro-savers’, who focus equally on energy saving and renewable energy generation. While the role of the more active pro-saver becomes relevant in the transition to a low carbon energy system, several presentations also reminded me that we must ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable in our societies are not forgotten in energy debates. This is the case especially for those who experience fuel poverty and face the every day dilemma of whether to ‘eat or heat’.

Eleni Kontonasiou from The Building Performance Institute Europe, highlighted in her talk that while many EU member states recognise that fuel poverty exists, there is still no single definition for fuel poverty across the EU. Many countries use the UK definition (which has in fact been updated but the old version seems to stick) of anyone who needs to spend more than 10% of their income on heating and electricity in order to have required energy services to cook, have lighting, keep warm, have a hot shower and so on. The root causes of fuel poverty usually are low income, poor quality housing and high energy prices. Karl-Michael Brunner from the University of Vienna noted that there are anywhere between 50-125 million people living in fuel poverty in the EU, compared to the estimated 506 million people living in the EU, this proportion is significant.

What makes dealing with fuel poverty tricky is that often those who live in fuel poverty are also otherwise vulnerable. People who live in fuel poverty may not be easily identified or reached, or for fear of stigma they may not want to be identified. Brunner, for example, mentioned that in Austria recent immigrants often face fuel poverty as they may have little local language skills. This means that people may not know how to ask for improved living conditions, but instead they are just grateful to have a roof over their heads (whether that roof is mouldy and leaking energy or water for that matter). Kontonasiou noted that tackling fuel poverty does not only have environmental benefits, but there are also other important, social benefits. These include for example reduced anxiety and depression, and overall improved health amongst those who come out of fuel poverty, as living conditions improve. This is beneficial also in terms of local health bills as fewer people need to visit their doctor.

Measures such as whole house retrofits and the use of local networks, for example through the Austrian model of ‘neighbourhood parents’ who identify those who need help, were examples given to address fuel poverty. As Brunner noted, while initiatives such as the neighbourhood parents can help, the root causes of fuel poverty cannot just be counselled away. Designing fuel poverty programmes however remains challenging. Ute Dubois from ISG International Business School noted that this is so especially in terms of who pays, who takes part and who ensures the continuity of such programmes. What are needed are area-based approaches to retrofitting, as well as capacity building in energy, housing and community life for all parties involved. Communities, fuel poverty campaigners and local authorities especially need to provide sustained effort. However, without commitment from the highest policy level, and some hard cash, fuel poverty may just stay on top of the agenda for the wrong reasons.