A Chain-Reaction of Negative Consequences of Living in Energy Poverty

A series of interviews conducted with citizens and stakeholder organisations shows how people experience energy poverty and also the institutional support offered to affected households in seven European countries.

“I don’t mind going around the house wearing coats, and lots of jumpers and stuff, I wear long-johns, and then I wear pyjamas over that, and then I have much bigger pyjamas to go over that, so it doesn’t bother me, but it’s kind of humiliating when people call in, you know, especially if they bring their kids with them, especially if they can see their breath on top of that as well.”

That’s what a middle-aged man told the EnergyMeasures team in Ireland in an interview in early 2021. And even if it is not yet a pressing problem for many households now, at the height of summer. The next heating season is coming – and with rising energy prices across Europe, it will pose major problems for even more households experiencing energy poverty. These households need institutional support. But what support do they need, and how do they experience their situation?

This question has been a crucial one for the EnergyMeasures project partners from the earliest stage of the project. Because after all, the aim of EnergyMeasures is to avoid offering support to households in seven European countries that they don’t need or don’t want. One of the goals of EnergyMeasures is to make policy recommendations. And previous experience has shown that “policies tend to be designed from a technical perspective, often lacking a proper alignment with household needs.” (D.1.3, p8)

A large number of interviews was planned to be conducted to access citizens views on support offered by various institutions and in different political frameworks. But the EnergyMeasures partners faced a problem. Households were difficult to reach for in-depth interviews; after all, Covid protections were in place in all participating states. Therefore, interviews were conducted with 33 staff organisations that have a wealth of experience in dealing with energy vulnerable households. 32 interviews however were conducted with citizens actually affected by energy poverty.

Three overarching questions guided the analysis: What were the experiences of citizens faced with energy poverty? What experiences did citizens have with policy or other types of institutional support in alleviating energy poverty? And: How could interventions better take into account the specific needs of energy poor households?

Differences and common patterns

Project Deliverable 1.3 ‘Citizen contains an analysis of the views on policy needs for energy poverty alleviation’. The authors of the report, Sylvia Breukers, Madelon van Duren, Jordan Young, Daphne van de Den and Marten Boekelo, found that various intermediaries aim to go beyond mere behavioural change interventions, in efforts to strengthen peoples’ capabilities to cope with energy poverty. The findings point towards the importance of strengthening social resilience and how intermediary organisations are better positioned and equipped to do this than institutional actors.

The interviews revealed some differences and also clear patterns regarding the experience of energy vulnerability. Mold, a constant companion of energy-poor households, plays a role in almost all interviews. In the interviews conducted with affected people in Belgium, it became apparent: “The citizens interviewed indicate that they mainly suffer from dampness and mould in their homes. In addition, their roofs are leaky, and draughts enter the house through the (closed) windows and from under the door. Most of the interviewees have single glazed windows in their homes. They indicate that they have to use a lot of energy to heat their homes.” (D.1.3, p13) It is often elderly people who suffer in particular from high energy costs, as they occupy the living space, on which entire families previously lived, in pairs or alone. This is evident from interviews conducted in Bielsko-Biała, Poland: “Elderly people are said to be especially vulnerable to energy poverty because many live-in houses that are too big for them.” (D.1.3, p38)

Energy poverty is not limited to winter months

An interview conducted in Bulgaria showed that high energy costs are also experienced negatively in summer: “One interviewee states that the damp, combined with overheating in the summer, affects their comfort negatively. Overheating is experienced by at least half of the interviewees, ranging from “mild” overheating which does not affect comfort to “very hot” indoor temperatures during the summer.”

All year long, structural differences, such as ownership of housing, play a major role in how people deal with and possible strategies to reduce energy vulnerability. In North-Macedonia, all of the affected persons with whom interviews were conducted were owners of their apartments. “For these interviewees, the main problem is the dilapidated state of the buildings, especially the facades, causing problems with moisture and mould.” (D.1.3, p33)

The interviews make it clear that energy vulnerability can be seen as a problem in its own right, as long as energy prices and structural deficits in energy market pricing are taken into account. However, they also show that energy vulnerability is an effect of a general problem – namely, too little household income, or simply put, poverty. This is summed up by a female, North Macedonian homeowner: “We would need first of all better salaries so we can afford thermal insulating the whole building. We have to be very, very careful how we spend the salary.” (D.1.3, p33)

What support do households need?

The interviews, which were conducted in spring 2021, not only aimed to find out how energy vulnerability is perceived by those affected, but also what approaches and strategies exist on the institutional side to support the affected households. The interviews conducted with various institutions and organizations for this purpose show that, although support can be provided at different points, close contact with the households is always necessary at the centre, and that assistance must be offered at a very low level in order to really reach households.

“According to the stakeholders, the solution to energy poverty often has to be sought in improving the housing situation. Two interviewees point out that first of all, the available social housing needs to increase,” the discussion of the Belgian interviews concludes. “Next, landlords should be encouraged to invest in the homes they rent out. One of the stakeholders emphasises that a lot of attention must be paid to communication with households and the behavioural aspects. Another stakeholder indicates that home visits and informal talks with households are important to make people feel comfortable to talk about their situation. Speaking the same dialect can be helpful. Another interviewee points out that small interventions through energy coaches can help reduce their energy bill.” (D.1.3, p16)

Furthermore, stakeholder interviews from Ireland show what can be described as a chain reaction by which affected households are captured: “Several stakeholder interviewees describe a chain-reaction of negative consequences of living in energy poverty, confirming how the poor quality of housing leads to inefficient heating, which in turn results in higher energy bills. Incomes are low (low wages; insufficient pensions; unemployment) so the result is deprivation where households go without the necessary energy and heating and/or cut back in other areas of spending (e.g., food or clothing). This all has consequences for their physical and mental health as well as for their financial situation.” (D.1.3, p24)

As for the EnergyMeasures project, we are now about to actively support households based on the interview findings. The analysis of the interviews conducted in the Netherlands, where the EnergyMeasures project works together with energy coaches in Eindhoven, indicates what is important for the steps ahead: Energy poor households need long-term support, a bottom-up approach, and more funding. (Municipal) organisations must work together to help energy poor households. When several organisations work together, early signalling of energy poverty becomes possible and problems can be addressed earlier. Organisations that could play a role in addressing energy poverty are: social housing associations, municipalities (e.g., social welfare organisations active in neighbourhoods), commercial rent organisations, and debt counselling.” (D.1.3, p32)

This kind of networked support is what the EnergyMeasures project is all about.