Breaking the poverty cycle

Ingredients for a local strategy against energy poverty

As the number of people in energy poverty rises – even more since Covid is around – solutions are urgently needed to help them find a way out of their desperate situation. Beyond individual support, there is a need to tackle the roots of the problem. A problem that involves more than the inability to pay a bill. In policy terms, it calls for a holistic approach, including social, environmental, health and housing policies. Binding EU regulations require Member States to measure energy poverty and take action to alleviate it. However, only a few countries have presented a national strategy with clear targets in their NECPs.

City administrations, in close contact with citizens in general and with the vulnerable public in particular, are best suited to appreciate the complexity of energy poverty on the ground. As for climate and transition plans, local strategies to fight energy poverty exist and can prove more ambitious than national ones. (See some examples here).

Ways to empower those in need

The first step is to identify the characteristics and extent of energy vulnerability in your city. Official indicators exist and local data will give you first-hand insights into the specific situation in your locality. Then, it makes sense to create a local group that involves different stakeholders (social workers, associations, community groups, etc.) and affected citizens to co-create such a strategy. The energy poor are experts on this issue! And you may want to use the lived experience approach whereby vulnerable people talk about their struggles and coping strategies in a semi-guided conversation with a researcher. This qualitative self-assessment of fuel poverty can help fine-tune objectives and mitigation measures.

Every city is unique, and no conclusions will result in a one-size-fits-all strategy. Existing initiatives include energy efficiency policies such as subsidies for building renovations and energy-efficient heating appliances, education for energy savings, financial support for energy bills, social tariffs, disconnection bans, and support for self-consumption or for the development of local energy communities.

While certain policies can only be implemented at the national level, many of them can be put in place very efficiently locally:

Retrofitting and energy efficiency measures targeting the most vulnerable households as a priority should be a key concern. Especially when the person in energy poverty owns their flat or house. Examples such as the Aster project in Flanders and People Powered Retrofit in Manchester show that regional and local actors (in this case, regional social housing organisations and NGOs respectively) can team up with national or EU institutions to successfully finance retrofit initiatives. The involvement of all citizens and socially driven market players should be also considered in the design of Positive Energy Districts to help avoid gentrification and enable the most vulnerable to benefit from local energy production and energy efficiency measures.

Energy audits and energy advice are also key in alleviating heavy energy bills and improving living conditions. Energy advisors, working closely with vulnerable households, can look at their situation from a multi-dimensional perspective (social, economic, health, etc.). Whether their activities target the household’s behaviour, appliances, insulation, or even the choice of energy supplier, results can be immediate and significant. This is the case for instance with the Energy Office in the city of Valencia, where the advising interventions resulted in savings of up to €500€ in a year, Frankfurt’s Caritas-Verbund electricity assistance fund, or the SLIME programme in France.    

District heating and cooling networks have proved to be an efficient solution to provide affordable and low carbon thermal comfort to households. Energy Cities is part of the HeatNet project, whose step-by-step manual for cities and towns includes technical and financial guidance as well as policy recommendations.

– Cities are also the best suited to support local energy communities. These can either use revenues to take measures against energy poverty or directly involve people experiencing energy poverty in the production of renewable energy. Furthermore, municipalities have a role to play in fostering local energy players with a social agenda. The POWER UP project for instance, will develop pilot business schemes to deliver locally produced energy and energy efficiency services, co-created together with vulnerable households.

– Finally, while addressing the structural factors of energy poverty is necessary, direct financial support to energy poor households is however vital to prevent vulnerable households having to face the impossible “eat or heat” choice.

And what about financing these initiatives?

A number of European instruments exist. Some of them are only available through national financing programmes (e.g. the Recovery and Resilience Facility). For pilot activities, cities and other local organisations can apply directly to EU funded programmes and instruments, such as LIFE or Horizon Europe. Investment concepts can be supported by the EU City facility or ELENA. Energy Cities’ most recent guide of funding opportunities for climate action may also cover some of your doubts and questions regarding fuel poverty mitigation measures. Programmes and the conditions for applying are fast-changing. We will keep you updated on new opportunities as they arise.