How complex is it to come up with a universal definition of energy poverty? 

Considering the development of recent geopolitical situation the issue of energy poverty is increasingly pressing. There are many governmental and small initiative efforts to combat this problem, yet one element, which affects the effectiveness of those efforts, persists. Namely, what is energy poverty and can we establish a universal definition?

In our recent consortium meeting we asked each other what is the definition ‘energy poverty’ and how it differs from other forms of poverty. Unsurprisingly each member gave a slightly varying definition, based on the experiences they had within their own country or their own local circles. Nevertheless to combat energy poverty on a large and long-term scale a unified description is essential to make EU wide policy changes. Can we come up with a one-fits-all definition and how challenging would that be? For the purpose of this discussion, this article will focus on two themes, out of many, which differentiate European countries namely energy sources and housing, which result from varying political and social conditions. 

Energy Sources and Housingin European Countries

Energy sources are an important criteria in defining energy poverty because they are strongly affected by the global geopolitical situation. For example in Bulgaria ‘About 75% of the electricity in the country is generated by the few coal power plants (39%) and the nuclear power plant (37%). Coal is mainly mined locally while nuclear fuel is supplied from Russia. […] The use of natural gas for domestic heating is still insignificant as a share’ (Saridaki et al 2023). On the other hand the Netherlands mainly uses gas (44%) and oil (37%) as well as have a higher percentage of renewable (10%) energy sources in the mix (Saridaki et al, 2023).

Another important variance is housing. This includes the built environment, but also human distribution. For example in Eastern Europe more individuals migrate to cities, leaving many rural places unattended, while in the Northern parts the difference between rural and urban living is not as polarised. This causes misunderstandings in unification of the term energy poverty even within one country, not no mention on an international level.

Two Scenarios and Their Implications for a Shared Definition

In order to illustrate the variance of energy sources and housing, let us consider two scenarios based on the current situation in the Netherlands and Bulgaria. In the Dutch scenario you live in a terraced house. Your surrounding consists of mainly similar housing units and your regional governmental composition has a very complex and bureaucratic structure. In the Bulgarian scenario you live in a multi-family housing, which you own, but are surrounded by post socialist high apartment blocks, which are state owned. In both scenarios your energy bill overwhelmingly high in proportion to your income therefore you find yourself in a situation, which can be referred to as energy poverty. Despite high ambitions and efforts of the EU, the vast differences in both these scenarios hinder the development of a common definition of your situation and thus a common set of EU policies, which consider your respective needs.

On the other hand, while taking into consideration individual or regional deviances is an essential process, it does not mean that a common approach to energy poverty cannot exist. Within the EU only, many households share the same issues of suffering the repercussions of geopolitical situation, pandemic or changing environmental conditions. If, for example, a common building standard can be established, which clarifies the minimum requirements for house insulation, then the same can be done for the topic of energy poverty. Specific mechanisms and measures can be developed and then adjusted by regional governments, so that a collaborative effort can be installed to battle the problem of energy poverty.