Patrycja Płonka from the Association of Municipalities Polish Network ‘Energie Cités’ (PNEC) gives insights into the prevailing situation in Poland and reveals how to support people affected by energy poverty in the midst of the pandemic.
What is the situation concerning energy poverty in Poland?
In Poland about 12% of the population is considered to live in energy poverty. Half of them are energy poor but not income poor ¹. Vulnerability to energy poverty largely depends on the region. The scale of the phenomenon varies between 6% and 18% in most of the voivodeships. The problem of too high energy costs compared to available income is especially visible in Eastern Poland, while the problem of too big and under-heated households – in Western regions of the country ². According to the study of the Szczecin University the COVID-19 pandemics has further exacerbated the phenomenon as the share of expenditures on energy carriers in relation to the income has increased on average by 1.3 percent ³. It can be expected that this share will be even higher in the coming years, as the Polish energy companies, still mostly using fossil fuels, need to bear the costs of emission allowances, as well as of the adaptation to increasingly strict environmental standards, which will certainly translate into energy prices.
How does energy poverty manifest itself?
As in other European regions, energy poverty manifests itself in households’ inability to satisfy their energy needs or need to satisfy them at the expense of other important expenditures – for example on food or healthcare. Many energy poor people or families live in poor housing conditions – often non-insulated, draughty houses, where harmful organisms like e.g. mould develop and where they don’t have adequate sanitary conditions. Often these houses are equipped with individual, old and inefficient boiler houses, where poor quality coal (or event waste!) is burnt as households cannot afford to replace the boiler or buy better fuel. Or doesn’t intend to as prefers to use the money for other needs. This unfortunately has serious impact on air quality and on the health of all residents in the neighbourhood.
What are effects of energy poverty?
As already mentioned, energy poverty has few dimensions. First the economic one as it is strictly related to economic poverty, significantly decreasing energy poor households’ access to other services and goods. With increasing costs of life they have to prioritize expenses, often having to choose between drastic energy saving, which reduces their thermal and overall comfort, and paying other invoices.
Other important aspect is health – the conditions the energy poor households live in often have impact not only on their health but also on the health of other residents, living in the neighbourhood. Living in underheated, draughty houses, with damp and mould, they are more likely to develop respiratory diseases, allergies and generally deteriorate their immune system. Burning poor quality, highly emissive fuels in old and inefficient boilers their pollute the air causing further health threat both for themselves and for their neighbours. This way we have reached also the environmental consequences of energy poverty – due to excessive low-stack emissions many Polish regions and cities are the most polluted in Europe!
What actions are taken to prevent energy poverty?
In Poland, the Act on energy poverty is still under preparation (as of July 2021). It shall create framework for the introduction of more structured measures for tackling energy poverty problem, which is considered an increasingly important challenge by the State. For now, the key support scheme for the energy poor households is an energy allowance, which is quite low however and limited only to households receiving also housing allowance. There are also national programmes, like “Clean Air” and “Stop smog” co-financing private buildings’ renovations. Most of other activities taken to prevent or tackle energy poverty are carried out at local level by various NGOs and aid organisations. They analyse the phenomenon, share knowledge with local authorities and the public, teach residents about the ways of reducing their energy consumption through low-cost actions (switching off unnecessary appliances, turning off lights, energy-efficient use of household appliances, etc.) leading to a reduction in energy bills, etc.
What support schemes for energy poor households do already exist?
As already mentioned, the main support schemes is the energy allowance but not all energy poor households can apply for it as there are various criteria to be met. In April 2016, the 500+ family benefit was also introduced (500 PLN per month for each child up to the age of 18), which indirectly contributed to reducing energy poverty by about 2 – 3 percentage points ⁴. Since 2019 also the following support schemes were introduced: offering pre-paid services by electricity sellers, introducing additional security against disconnections from the grid for people experiencing energy poverty, allowing consumers to freely change energy providers, without any fees ⁵.
An important aid is the national “Clean Air” and “Stop smog” funding programmes, that co-finance thermo-modernisation works and replacement of heat sources in private households. Also, many municipalities, as a part of their low-stack emission liquidation programmes, implement their own co-financing schemes aiming to improve private buildings energy efficiency and equip them with more environmentally friendly energy sources. Although the energy poverty is quite a new topic on municipalities’ agenda, although already existent in the public debate for some time, we can see more and more other local initiatives aiming to increase energy vulnerable household’s energy awareness and knowledge on the possible energy saving measures, available funding schemes, etc., as well as to provide them with individual consultation. In Małopolska region, for example, there has been created whole network of municipal Eco-advisers’, part of whose job is to work with and support energy poor.
What are the target groups who are affected most?
There are four characteristic groups, which suffer from energy poverty the most. The first one are the residents of urban poverty enclaves, often inhabitants of pre-war tenement houses, which are in poor technical state and with inefficient heating. Half of them live in buildings belonging to municipality and social benefits are an important source of their income. The second group are the elderly people living in large houses on the countryside. They were meant as multifamily buildings but now 1-2 people leave on large living area, too expensive to tend. The third group are poor inhabitants of villages and smaller towns, owners of relatively small but old and un-insulated houses, heated with coal. The last group are extended families living in large houses on the country side, often living from agriculture or holding worker positions ².
How do you identify households that are eligible to participate in EnergyMeasures?
Since Poland still doesn’t have energy poverty definition, as well as the phenomenon is not yet well recognised on the local stage, it was decided to go with the data that are possible to be obtained and with quite wide criteria allowing more people to apply for free consultation and support. The first one if of course household’s income per person and how much of it is used to cover expenditures on energy. The second one is the state of the building the person or family is living in – lack of insulation, old and inefficient heating source or poor overall state are important factors showing that the household is in need of support. The third criterion is inadequate living comfort (inability to keep home adequately warm, lit, high humidity and mould, etc.). But what is very important is also the households’ genuine interest in joining the initiative and making the change!
How are you planning to reach energy poor households?
Since the target group is quite diverse, we’re planning to use diverse communication methods and tools, starting from traditional ones, like city website, newsletter, local free bulletins, housing associations bulletins, housing association and church boards, etc, and ending with social media – not only managed by the municipality but also most popular local Facebook profiles. We’re also planning to engage key local stakeholders like housing associations, schools, churches, seniors’ clubs, relevant NGOs (e.g. focusing on social issues or energy issues), etc. They are the closest to the residents, contact or work with them on a daily basis. Using intermediaries that are already trusted, we might increase interest in the programme. But what is the most important, I guess, is to find the right language and the right messages, highlighting not the difficult situation that many households are in but that there are ways to improve and it is worth to try them. And we’re there to help!
What challenges did you face when approaching households, given the current Covid-19 measures?
The Covid-19 pandemics of course made the situation more difficult, not only for the households but also for our support programme. Such programmes require personal contact and open discussions in a friendly environment. Not all the people consider on-line environment as friendly and many people of our target group have limited or no access to internet. All this made us postpone key activities but we really hope that from September 2021 personal meetings will be possible, at least among vaccinated people and in limited groups. Then we will be able to reach wider number of potentially interested households and better verify their living conditions, not only based on data provided by them – and it might happen that they don’t know much about technicalities concerning their buildings – but on personal observation.
How can the project still be implemented – are there any ideas for this?
We try to stay optimistic and believe that we will successfully implement the project – one way or the other. We’re starting recruitment now, which may be done more on distance – through traditional communication channels, social media and most of all – people who our target groups meet or contact anyway – teachers, social care workers, housing associations’ administration staff. We hope that, with vaccinations, it will be possible to organise at least part of households visits personally and not virtually. Especially that some people, e.g., single elderly people, will have problem with joining the latter. But we will observe the situation and find the best solutions to efficiently support as many energy poor households as possible.
1 Bouzaroski et al., 2019
2 https://ec.europa.eu/energy/eu-buildings-factsheets-topics-tree/energy-poverty_en?redir=1; IBS Policy Brief UBÓSTWO ENERGETYCZNE W POLSCE – DIAGNOZA I REKOMENDACJE (en. IBS Policy Brief Energy poverty in Poland – Diagnosis and recommendation)
3 Impact of COVID-19 on the Level of Energy Poverty in Poland Rafal Nagaj and Jaroslaw Korpysa
5 LIFE Unify (2020), “Tackling energy poverty through National Energy and Climate Plans: Priority or empty promise? “