Fuel poverty is a growing concern in France, which Ute Dubois, a Professor of Economics at ISG Business School (Paris), critically discusses in the following guest post.
Since the middle of the past decade, there is a higher awareness in France on the issue of fuel poverty. However, until recently, France had no formal definition of fuel poverty (précarité énergétique) and policies addressing the difficulties of fuel poor households were partial, often dealing with the consequences of fuel poverty (especially electricity and gas debts) and less often with its causes (one exception being the social funds for energy efficiency that have been created in some Départements for 10 years).
The history of a definition
From the middle of the 1980s’, several measures have been created to help low income households to pay their debts to their electricity and gas suppliers. However, only little was done in the field of energy efficiency, and awareness on fuel poverty was very limited in France until the middle of the last decade.
With the increase of energy prices from 2004, the problematic of affordability of energy for low income households entered the political debate. First, a higher awareness of fuel poverty issues in France resulted in the creation of a network of fuel poverty actors called “RAPPEL” (Réseau des Acteurs de la Pauvreté et la Précarité Energétique dans le Logement, www.precarite-energie.org) in 2007. Then, fuel poverty was, among other topics, analysed by the French environment roundtables called ‘‘Grenelle de l’environnement’’, that started in 2007. This reflection resulted in a first study (Plan Bâtiment Grenelle, 2009) estimating the number of households in fuel poverty. The definition of fuel poverty used at that stage was inspired by the UK definition, but the estimation of the number of households in fuel poverty was based on actual energy expenditures. According to that study, 3.4 million households were in fuel poverty in 2006, which led to the inclusion of fuel poverty in the “Grenelle 2” law on the environment of July 2010. The definition of “energy precariousness” (précarité énergétique) given by that law is vague: “anyone who meets, in its housing, particular difficulties to have the necessary energy to meet its basic energy needs because of the inadequacy of its resources or of its housing conditions”. Therefore, in practice, it has been complemented by an unofficial, more practicable definition that is inspired by the UK definition: a threshold of (actual) energy expenses of 10 % of incomes is currently used as a definition of fuel poverty.
Fuel poor households
According to that “unofficial” definition, 3.8 million households (i.e. 8 million of people) are currently estimated in fuel poverty (Rappel, 2012). This represents 14.4 % of the French population. The people that are over-represented in that group are:
– Households of the 1st income quartile, who represent two thirds of the total number of fuel poor households, i.e. 40.1 % of households of the 1st income quartile are fuel poor.
– Homeowners, who represent 62 % of the total number of fuel poor households, i.e. 19.5 % of homeowners are fuel poor
– Elderly people are also over-represented in the fuel poor population (one household out of four headed by a person older than 60 years being fuel poor).
In terms of housing, the fuel poor are mostly living:
– in individual homes (72.8 % of the total number of fuel poor households),
– in homes that have been built before 1948,
– in rural areas.
Because of these characteristics of the households actually spending 10 % of their incomes or more on energy, the recent French fuel poverty policy (the programme “Habiter mieux”) has chosen to focus on homeowners living in rural areas and especially on elderly people (Dubois, 2012).
These profiles of the “expenditure fuel poor” households have been compared with the characteristics of households who declare having suffered from cold homes during the winter (Devalière and Briant, 2011). 3.5 million households have been in that situation in 2006, i.e. 14.8 % of the French population. One third of these household are rationing their energy use. Their profiles are very different from the previous group: if people of the 1st income quartile are still over-represented, the following groups are over-represented:
– people younger than 50 years,
– people living in large urban areas (more than 200 000 inhabitants),
– in collective housing,
– and in homes built between 1949 and 1975.
The interesting point about these two approaches of fuel poverty is that they result in the identification of two quasi-distinct populations. At the intersection, only 621 000 households are both spending more than 10 % of their incomes for energy and are suffering from cold homes (Devalière and Briant, 2011).
Since 2010, France has launched a new, country-wide programme called « Habiter mieux » (http://www.anah.fr/habitermieux.html) that aims at improving the thermal efficiency of homes of fuel poor households by 25 % at least. It has been declined in the different French Départements in the form of “local contracts of commitment against fuel poverty”. In these contracts, each Département estimates the number of households in fuel poverty and defines quantitative target in terms of homes that should be renovated. “Habiter mieux” has really started in 2011 and it seems that a identifying the households and convincing them to engage in this kind of large thermal refurbishment projects requires a learning process of the local actors in charge of implementing the programme.
In the same time, the symptoms of fuel poverty are progressing. According to the national energy ombudsman, the economic crisis and the recent energy price increases (+ 25 % for gas in two years and + 8 % for electricity) is putting more and more vulnerable households in a difficulties with regards to the payment of their energy bills. The number of referrals for payment difficulties has increased by 15 % in 2011, with an average energy debt of 1 900 euros (Médiateur National de l’Energie, 2012).
Since the last national survey on housing of 2006, France has not collected systematic data on fuel poverty. Therefore, the current extent of fuel poverty is not known precisely. And the next survey of that kind is planned in 2013. However, with the recent creation of the national observatory of fuel poverty (http://www2.ademe.fr/servlet/KBaseShow?sort=-1&cid=96&m=3&catid=25227), it can be expected that more information will be produced on the French situation in terms of fuel poverty.
Devalière, I., Briant, P. (2011), La précarité énergétique : avoir froid ou dépenser trop pour se chauffer, INSEE Première, N° 1351 – May 2011 , http://www.insee.fr/fr/ffc/ipweb/ip1351/ip1351.pdf
Dubois, U., 2012, From targeting to implementation: The role of identification of fuel poor households, Energy Policy, Vol. 49, pp. 107-115, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421511009852 .
Médiateur National de l’Energie, 2012, Rapport d’activité 2011 du Médiateur National de l’Energie, http://www.energie-mediateur.fr/fileadmin/user_upload/Publications/RA_MNE_2011.pdf
Plan Bâtiment Grenelle, 2009, Groupe de travail Précarité énergétique, Report, http://www.ladocumentationfrancaise.fr/var/storage/rapports-publics/104000012/0000.pdf
Rappel, 2012, Focus précarité énergétique. La lettre du réseau Rappel, n° 12, June 2012, http://www.precarite-energie.org/IMG/pdf/Focus_9-web.pdf
Rappel, 2011, Précarité énergétique. Etat des lieux et propositions d’actions, January 2011, http://www.precarite-energie.org/IMG/pdf/Precarite_energetique_-_tables_rondes_departementales_V2-2.pdf
 Départements are administrative divisions of the French state. Currently, France is split into 101 départements. Each of them has executive functions, with an assembly called “Conseil general”. Départements have powers especially in the fields of social and sanitary action, local public transports, education, culture, etc.
 In 2009, 20 départements had created such social funds.
 Loi n° 2010-788 du 12 juillet 2010 portant engagement national pour l’environnement.