Energy poverty is not a new phenomenon: In 2019, 1 in 4 households in the EU, over 50 million individuals, could not afford to adequately heat, cool or light their homes. COVID-19, a war in Ukraine, skyrocketing energy prices and a cost of living crisis have further exacerbated this situation.
The European Commission and Member States are adopting emergency measures to support households and businesses to face the high price of energy. Short-term support for households to help them pay their energy bills ( e.g price reductions and direct income support) is definitely needed. However, these short-term measures must pave the way to long-term solutions that ensure everyone has access to sustainable renewable heating in the near future. If this is not the case, financial support to households will:
- End up in the deep pockets of the fossil fuel industry who have been profiting from the current energy price crisis, as, most people in Europe still depend on fossil gas and coal for heating their homes
- Lock these households into using fossil fuel-based installations by disincentivising a shift to renewable energy: Short-term support to pay energy bills needs to be embedded in a longer-term approach to end energy-poor people’s dependence on fossil fuels
- Weigh heavily on public budgets, especially when the support is not targeted to those in need. This then risks austerity banging at the door while adequate funding for health, education, upskilling and reskilling or job guarantees is needed more than ever in these difficult times.
There are solutions though. Wage increases to cope with inflation, adequate energy pricing measures, and robust social protection are part of the response. What is often undervalued is the crucial role that building renovation and heating decarbonisation have to play in combating energy poverty. The impact of EU policies need to be felt in people’s homes. The renovation of Europe’s buildings needs to be accelerated, with a specific focus on worst performing buildings as well as energy poor and people at risk of energy poverty (see NGOs Checklist for a successful Energy Performance of Buildings Directive Recast).
To attain our energy and climate commitments while ensuring a fair and just transition, governments should provide adequate financing and technical support for ambitious renovation (so-called deep renovation) to make people’s homes more energy-efficient, with dedicated efforts to reach vulnerable households. When deep renovation is not feasible in one step (because of high upfront cost, time constraints), renovation can be done incrementally in order to urgently improve the quality of life inside their homes and to reduce their energy bills without delay. The initial investment must ensure a high level of cost-efficiency, combining thermal insulation with actions on the heating/ventilation system of buildings. As energy poor households are unable enjoy sufficient temperature comfort in their living spaces (as we often talk about worst-performing buildings), these approaches will ensure a high level of indoor comfort is reached (and with it more healthy living conditions) , which is particularly relevant for worst-performing buildings, while saving energy and reducing CO2 emissions. However, the final objective through a limited number of steps in the renovation process should remain a deep renovation that substantially improves energy-efficiency.
Civil society organisations and public administrations need to be adequately resourced to accompany energy-poor people and connect relevant actors for a successful roll-out of building renovations and the integration of renewable heating solutions (financial institutions, condominium managers, construction companies, social housing, architects, municipality, social services, etc). Accompanying citizens before, during and after the renovation (after i.e. how to best ensure energy savings) is indeed absolutely crucial to make sure they benefit from the renovation efforts. It is also important for civil society organisations or public authorities who are in charge of programmes targeting the energy-poor, to work with social services and identify and proactively reach out to people in need of support, which can also be done through theuse of other adapted outreach media (for example, local radio stations). Working with organisations focusing on women’s rights or supporting women, women-led households and organisations focused on children is also crucial to make sure they help identify the right people in need of support. Help desks or one-stop-shops need to be combined with field visits to people’s homes. Trainings on energy concepts and regulation (how to save energy and reduce bills, how to improve comfort in homes and how to reduce CO2 emissions, the rights of energy consumers, etc) for social actors and families who can benefit from a support help making them active agents of the energy transition. In light of the fact that not all energy-poor people own their home, it is important to have effective regulations in place to address the tenant/owner complexities. Collecting gender-disaggregated data when rolling-out such renovation or renewable heating roll-out programs targeting low-income people will allow them to measure their impact on gender equality as well.
Last but not least, non-targeted financial support, or financial support without the right flanking measures, will not reach the energy-poor. It is important to adapt the financing schemes (subsidy, tax refund, upfront costs, etc) to the targeted people (taking into account their age, whether they own their home, etc).
There are very successful experiences in various Member States to ensure public and private financial support for renovations and renewable heating solutions benefit first and foremost those most in need. In Spain, for example, CAN Europe’s member organisation ECODES is rolling-out a programme called Ni un hogar sin energia (no home without energy) whereby they accompany energy poor households to carry energy diagnostics, to accompany in implementation of emergency renovations and energy efficiency measures, to identify financing opportunities and ensure improved comfort in homes while reducing the energy bill. Energy Cities, through the EU project Innovate, has supported one of its members, the city of Mantova (Italy), to carry out a pilot project whereby a building underwent deep renovation through alternative financing schemes adapted to the personal situation of inhabitants (mostly aged people owning their apartment). Partnerships, targeted outreach, accompanying inhabitants and adequate financing schemes have been key to success. These examples show that achieving building and heating decarbonisation by working with vulnerable households to improve their living circumstances is possible. They show that climate action and social justice go hand in hand!