“I feel a bit frustrated when I feel like people aren’t tackling energy poverty because they’re waiting for it to be defined.”

Marilyn Smith, journalist and communications consultant with specialisation in the energy sector. (Image: private)

Marilyn Smith is a Paris based journalist with a background in energy reporting. She is responsible for the communication of the Energy Action Project. We talked to her about how diverse the manifestations of energy poverty are in Europe, and why it is not always easy to generate attention for this issue. 

You work on a project related to energy poverty.  What can you tell us about it?

The project is called the Energy Action Project and it aims to raise awareness about energy poverty in different contexts, but also to do reporting on who is doing what to address it. We want to show that the impacts of energy poverty are very different from one context to another and even what energy poverty is, is different from one context to another. 

Does the project also focus on solutions to energy poverty? 

When you you talk about the solutions they’re very different to what the particular problem is and to the context of where it is. In a lot of ways the technology solutions are the easy part. Then it’s figuring out how to scale those up and get financing and policy behind them and get people to accept them. What we want to do is report on the complexity of these challenges in a way that isn’t complex. The En-Act website is a communication portal to the different types of energy poverty.

What are the different types? 

You know, in developing countries you’re looking at that people have no access to electrification but also people that are still using biomass to cook or heat. We also think about energy poverty in terms of humanitarian situations or refugee camps where energy access is low. That’s a different kind of situation than a remote village that has never had any access to energy. And then you know really the the cold at home website we created is very specific to the situation in Europe and North America where it’s not that you don’t have access to energies, but that you can’t afford enough of it for health and well-being. 

What is your part in the project?

My background is journalism and i did science and health reporting when i was going to journalism school. I worked at the National Research Council of Canada where I did a lot of reporting on different types of science. I than came to Paris was offered a position as chief editor at the International Energy Agency. There, I got to know the energy sector quite well, but that’s also where I first learned about the issue of energy poverty and where I realized that the technology part is often the easiest part. At that time, around 2012, when the Sustainable Development Goals were being developed, I thought: Somebody really needs to do good reporting on this whole complex of access to energy.

You say, the technology part is easily resolvable. What’s the challenge then?

If you want to get people to understand energy, the biggest challenge is to get them to engage in energy reporting. Even if you look at the newspaper energy reporting it is probably going to be in the business section or maybe the science section but it’s not going to be where most people happen to find it. In our project we have look for reporting that’s going to empower. The idea of that is: we want our content to help people make better decisions about  energy or about their engagement in in the energy poverty challenge. But I felt right from the beginning that if you want to empower people there’s a couple of other steps before that and  the first challenge is to engage them and the second is to provide a bit of information. And then the third step is to explain and then you can empower.

When you say empower, what exactly do you have in mind?

That’s actually a really good question. We definitely want to empower people who are in energy poverty to make small decisions every day about how they’re using energy differently or how they could reduce their energy consumption. We’re building up a list of energy saving tips. And then the second part of that would be a list of organizations you could go to for help. And the third part addresses people who don’t live in energy poverty but might want to help somebody else that does. 

How could people help other people affected by energy poverty?

One example Here in France there’s a renewable energy cooperative that you can choose to join and you can also choose to round up your energy bill to the next euro. And those 37 or 97 cents will go on to the bill of somebody who’s struggling to get their energy paid. We’re looking for those kinds of things. We also know of a group in Portugal that uses young people who are volunteers to go out and renovate people’s homes. 

When it comes to energy poverty there’s one tension. On the one hand, you wouldn’t naturally say that energy is too expensive because you want it to be used more sustainably and you want people see an incentive to to use as less as they can. And on the other hand there’s people who cannot afford it. How can this tension be released? 

This is a challenge for the regulatory systems, i think. I don’t necessarily think that moving away from market liberalization in the energy sector is the answer. I think market liberalization has failed in some ways and been tremendously successful in other ways. I don’t think that we would have had the level of innovation in the energy sector that we’ve had in the last 20 years. I don’t think that solar and wind energy would be as cheap as they are now if if it had been governments alone running the energy sector. But it’s the regulatory body that I think is going to have to determine what level of profit is acceptable. or how do the energy companies that are making profits become more How do we put greater obligations on energy companies to not put an unfair burden on low-income families.

Energy poverty has diverse faces. Would a shared understanding of the problem help in developing solutions?

A lot of discussion is circling around whether the EU needs an definition of energy poverty. I understand that’s important in terms of quantifying. But to do something about it from a policy perspective does not necessarily need a shared definition. Whenever people talk to me about that question of defining energy poverty my analogy goes back to the definition of marriage. How you defined marriage 10 years ago is completely different from how you define it today. What’s important is that it’s actually opened up to reflect a whole bunch of different kinds of marriage and making sure that there is equality for all of those different kinds of marriage. And so I think to say that anybody spending more than 10 percent of their income on energy falls under the definition of energy poverty is not very useful. It’s an indicator, but i don’t necessarily think it’s a good definition. 

You mean, there is no need for a strict definition?

I feel a bit frustrated when I feel like people aren’t tackling energy poverty because they’re waiting for it to be defined. There are so many EU funded projects that are researching different aspects of energy poverty, but so few that seek to change people’s lives. So I often feel frustrated by the level of funding that is going into research versus the level of funding that’s actually going into making people’s homes better. And then there is social entrepreneurship that tackles energy poverty. That’s what can make a difference in people’s liveswithin a year. 

We believe that energy poverty needs storytelling to make the problem tangible for people who are not directly affected. What story about energy poverty comes to your mind, when you think of it?

We have a set of photos on our website. It’s from Sweden, which is one of the countries saying that there should not be EU law on energy poverty because they say we don’t have any in Europe. The situation that we found in Sweden is that people who live quite far up north in the country, close to the hydropower plants, have a lot of blackouts. 

Those people buy things like diesel generators and batteries and lamps and they keep their water tubs filled in the winter, because they know that they might not have water. One couple, probably in their 70s, they are traditional reindeer herders, was out one summer with their herd. They came back and realized there hadbeen a power outage for several days. And all of the meat from their previous season was gone. For them that was a huge economic loss because of an energy blackout. So it’s not energy poverty in the way we think of it. It’s not always about people that couldn’t pay their energy bills. 

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