COLD@HOME: Probing the growing problem of fuel poverty

Our latest article is from Marilyn Smith, Executive Director of The Energy Action Project (EnAct), an exciting initiative that seeks to change the way in which energy poverty is reported on globally.

"There's nothing left to live on," says Katja, her gas and electricity bills being $65/month while her pension is $73. Her son and granddaughter recently returned home: Stephan spends his days, and depletes his savings, repairing the house. They rely on Masha's part-time job to put food on the table. Credit: P. Madsen/EnAct

“There’s nothing left to live on,” says Katja, her gas and electricity bills being $65/month while her pension is $73. Her son and granddaughter recently returned home: Stephan spends his days, and depletes his savings, repairing the house. They rely on Masha’s part-time job to put food on the table. Credit: P. Madsen/EnAct

As the problem of fuel poverty grows in Europe, a larger network of researchers is carrying out vital work to investigate causes, impacts and solutions – often with the aim of shaping policy that will lift people out of difficult situations.

COLD@HOME, a pilot project of The Energy Action Project (EnAct) aims to fundamentally change the role of the media in reporting on energy poverty in diverse contexts around the globe. First and foremost by partnering with energy experts to be sure reporting is accurate and supports their aim to raise awareness and prompt action.

In contrast to the mainstream media tendency to focus on ‘energy problems’ in 500 words or less, EnAct creates a space to continuously build content on big issues – while allowing visitors to explore the complexity of both the issue and its solutions (technology, policy, financing, etc.) at their own pace.

Our tagline, ‘Reporting that seeks to empower’, reflects the goal of helping people take action in the face of energy challenges and also shows that others are working on solutions. We also hope the personal stories (see web documentaries Cold at Home and Pennies make pounds) will help the problem solvers better grasp how the problem impacts those facing it.

Dawn, a single mom, serves her pre-teen boys breakfast next to an electric fire to avoid turning on the central heating. Each night, Callum and Nathan run through check-lists to turn off computers, game consoles and gadgets. Saving energy every day in winter, Dawn reminds them, may mean money for a vacation come summer. Credit: P. Madsen/EnAct

Dawn, a single mom, serves her pre-teen boys breakfast next to an electric fire to avoid turning on the central heating. Each night, Callum and Nathan run through check-lists to turn off computers, game consoles and gadgets. Saving energy every day in winter, Dawn reminds them, may mean money for a vacation come summer. Credit: P. Madsen/EnAct

We also recognize that empowering people first requires that you also make effort to engage, inform and explain. Our web documentaries and interactive content have proven successful in engaging people, and making the topic of fuel poverty relevant to them. Our Features and ‘parallel blogs’ (see Inside) give enough detail to ‘inform’ in The Basics side, with an option to go Indepth for more explanation. Finally, the Act Now section of the site provides tips on how people can start making changes to save energy at home.

The concept for EnAct took seed while I served as Chief Editor at the International Energy Agency, and saw that energy actors spend a lot of time talking to each other (including writing academic papers and presenting a conferences) and all struggle to get media attention. Yet, even among my circle of friends, knowledge of energy news (and energy in general!) was woefully low.

EnAct’s aim is to create an online energy magazine that serves as a venue for academics, policy makers and thought leaders to communicate directly to the public, which can also prompt interaction among experts whose paths would not normally intersect. Our approach of having experts and journalists collaborate on content also helps the experts understand the importance of storytelling and of finding ways to explain their work in relatively simple terms.

The growing problem of fuel poverty was selected as an initial topic because it is so close to home, yet so invisible or misunderstood. Almost no-one in Europe or North America would think that a neighbor faces health risks or chooses each day ‘whether to heat or eat’ because of their energy bills. Yet an estimated 100 million people do.

An underlying message of the COLD@HOME package is that most cases of fuel poverty are not about being poor: rather, they result from a poor quality home requiring excessive energy for a healthy level of comfort. Our investigation of the impacts of fuel poverty – from colds and asthma among children, to increased stress and depression in adults and even early death among the elderly – emphasizes the importance of seeking (and accepting) help, or taking small measures to reduce consumption and gain some sense of personal control over one’s circumstances.

By taking the reporting from personal stories to their cumulative effects, EnAct helps build the case for large-scale coordinated action by policy makers, industry, social agencies and financial institutions. A study by the Buildings Research Establishment, for example, demonstrates that being ‘cold at home’ carries a high cost to England’s National Health System. (Can you match the household hazards and their respective costs? Visit: http://www.coldathome.today/what-do-cold-homes-cost-a-country).

The opportunity to reduce health care costs by retrofitting poor quality homes is central to the fuel poverty strategy launched by Ireland in February 2016. The strategy prioritizes people known to be suffering or at-risk of health impacts and targets improving the quality of rental properties. Investigating fuel poverty in different contexts (Greece, France, Ukraine, the UK and among Canada’s First Nations) highlights the need to tailor solutions.

In the coming weeks, COLD@HOME will build up content on technical, policy, financial and cultural/social solutions. We will also be examining how small steps to save energy at home, combined with deployment of more efficient devices and large-scale retrofits, ultimately help keep energy costs down for everyone. EnAct welcomes ideas for contributions from members of the EU Fuel Poverty Network!

A Fin-oven burns wood quickly at high temperatures; heat captured in its concrete mass is released slowly over many hours. Credit: Sebastiaan Veldhuisen

A Fin-oven burns wood quickly at high temperatures; heat captured in its concrete mass is released slowly over many hours. Credit: Sebastiaan Veldhuisen

Initially, EnAct’s aim of producing content that would engage and empower both the public and actors in the energy sector seemed wildly ambitious. Recently, we learnt that energy has become a regular dinner-table topic for the family of a 15-year-old boy who follows our Facebook page. A professional woman wrote to say that after connecting the dots between posts about the energy and water needed to produce plastic – and how plastic waste impacts the environment – she is again drinking tap water. And a senior policy maker confirmed that he has quoted our content in high-level meetings.

So far, so good! We’re excited to keep exploring how a strategic media effort can contribute to changing beliefs and behaviours about energy. And will keep following the excellent work of the EUFPN.

 

Marilyn Smith, Executive Director (marilyn.smith@en-act.org)

The Energy Action Project (EnAct)

Note: EnAct is grateful for start-up support from ROCKWOOL International. In order to pursue our goal of building content over the long term, we would be pleased to speak with other potential financial partners or sponsors.

EnAct’s tagline, Reporting that seeks to empower‘ reflects a very specific aim to develop content that will have an impact. The multimedia format reflects our belief that empowering people requires three up-front steps. EnAct uses stories and web documentaries about real people to ‘engage’ its audiences. Blogs jointly developed by journalists and energy experts serve the purpose of ‘informing’ and ‘explaining’ the complexity of the problem and the efforts underway to address it. An ‘Act Now’ section provides tips on how people can reduce their energy consumption, where to go for help, or how to help others in need.

EnAct aims to expand its reporting to energy poverty in diverse contexts around the world with the dual goal of building support for energy access initiatives while improving energy literacy. Follow us online at www.en-act.org or through social media: www.facebook.com/theenergyactionproject / Twitter: @EnActNow / Instagram: @everyday_energy  

If you’re an energy actor, drop a line to explore ways to partner: info@en-act.org

Comments on: "COLD@HOME: Probing the growing problem of fuel poverty" (1)

  1. Thanks for the great share! I also like the idea of Home Energy. The best part I like is this: The reliability and availability of modern energy sources cause people to tend to assume that it will always be accessible. And as for the case of non-renewable energy sources, most people do not know or maybe even refuse to accept that it will eventually run out.

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EU Fuel Poverty Network | Working to fight fuel poverty across Europe