The energy poverty situation is severe in the South and East Europe (SEE) region, where 30%, or more, of households are struggling with energy poverty (see video). It is commonly falsely assumed that energy poverty has the same characteristic, regardless of the cultural, climatic or political background. However, practice has shown that regional and historical differences play a significant role in prevalence and characteristics of energy poverty. The SEE region has some specific characteristics as compared to other parts of the EU:
- Energy poverty is still an issue of low or no political interest in the region, and hence the problem is less defined, monitored or tackled than in Western European countries.
- Occurrence of persons, who are not poor, yet cannot afford adequate energy services, is more often higher in SEE than in other parts of Europe. This leads to higher occurrence of actions that reduce well-being, such as self-disconnection from heating.
- The housing stock in SEE countries is in relatively poor state as compared to the rest of Europe. Inefficient dwellings, combined with the inefficient heating systems and domestic appliances, contribute to the bigger depth of energy poverty in SEE.
- In some cases, the buildings are in such deteriorated state that full retrofitting of the building is not possible, hence re-settlement programs would be needed.
- Occurrence of homes that are not attached to the electricity grid is more often in SEE than in Western Europe. In such situations it is hard to address energy poverty with measures for improving energy efficiency; programs for installing off-grid PV systems would be needed.
- Related to the aforementioned specifics, living conditions are sometimes shockingly bad: mold, cold, unheated spaces, etc., all adversely affecting the health of the inhabitants.
- In SEE countries there is very limited social or other support for energy poor households.
This different context needs to be taken into consideration when discussing energy poverty definitions. The 1991 Boardman definition (energy poverty occurs when a households is unable to have adequate energy services for 10 % of income), is not suitable for the SEE region. Applying this definition to Macedonia, Croatia or Bulgaria would result in large parts of population being energy poor. Bouzarovski’s (2007) definition that energy poverty is a situation where a household is unable to access a materially and socially–necessitated level of energy services in the home is estimated to suit the region better.
To address the challenge of energy poverty in SEE region, project REACH (see video) is working to empower energy poor households in Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia and Slovenia. The overall objective of project REACH is to contribute to energy poverty abatement at practical and structural levels. This objective translates into twofold specific objectives of the project: to empower energy poor households to take actions to save energy and change their habits, and to establish energy poverty as an issue that demands structural solutions (tailor-made policies and measures) at local, national and EU level.
Target groups of project REACH are energy poor households, local, national and EU level decision makers, local actors that can help address energy poverty, such as social care/support services, local authorities, local energy providers or building managers, and vocational schools, whose professors and students are trained to perform simple energy audits in the energy poor households.
REACH is still an on-going project; therefore there are no final results yet. However, some preliminary results can illustrate the possible achievements of visits in energy poor households. So far over 40 teachers and 200 students and volunteers from vocational schools were trained to preform energy audits in energy poor households (see video). They helped partners to implement more than 1000 household visits, whereby basic energy efficiency measures were put in place, on average 3 free energy saving devices per household. The initial results show that a visited household can save on average over 75 EUR and almost 150 kg of CO2 emissions on an annual basis.
Apart from practical savings, the partners have so far also motivated over 50 local actors to engage and address the challenge of energy poverty. They have formed five local networks for addressing the challenge at local level. An overview of energy poverty at national and local levels has helped the partners to get to know the scope and depth of the problem. The overview represents the analytical basis for shaping policy recommendations and organising national and EU level policy work. Partners have composed a set of policy recommendations that are specific to the SEE region and debated them with various decision makers at different occasions, one of them being a debate in the European Parliament in June 2016.
A key step in the SEE region is to define and agree on indicators that need to be monitored for understanding energy poverty. Data collection should be improved. Energy poverty should be included in national level energy efficiency programmes. National programs for energy poverty should offer implementation mechanisms, which are specifically designed for improvement of energy efficiency for the vulnerable consumers. Apart from doing low-cost energy efficiency measures, measures to tackle energy poverty should also encompass: replacement of household appliances, replacement of inefficient heating system (with use of renewables when possible), different levels of retrofitting building envelope, deep renovation of the buildings, subsidies, which are suitable and useful for energy poor households (e.g. high financing rates), loans with no interest should be supported, and all state owned social housing should be renovated to improve the housing conditions.
When there is no cost-effective option to connect affected households to the power grid, an option that can be considered is to develop support programs for installation of off-grid photovoltaic systems in remote areas as this would enable some energy poor households to get access to energy. Energy efficiency programmes for energy poor should be carefully designed so that they would be available and accessible to those in need. It is important to minimise bureaucracy and if necessary free assistance should be provided for filling in documentation and applications for receiving various forms of support for energy efficiency. Financial support, such as deduction of energy bills, should be used as a measure after all cost-effective energy efficiency options have been implemented. EU funding, i.e. through the cohesion funds, should offer funding lines targeted specifically for tackling energy poverty. On a national level, funds available through different schemes, i.e. through the Emissions Trading Scheme and other polluter pays principles, or national lottery, should also be considered for funding energy efficiency improvements in vulnerable households. To improve the planning and implementation of energy poverty measures, also long-term strategies, not only short-term measures, should be developed. Local actors should be involved in designing strategies, but the responsibility should be carried by high level decision makers. Energy poverty related policies must be designed in a fully participatory manner involving a wide range of interested stakeholders in the process, especially focusing on creating links between the social, energy, health and environmental sector. Work towards aligning of energy and social policies is needed, as well as linking energy poverty policies with a wider array of policies, such as employment, housing or pension policies.
Several positive reactions to the policy recommendations are so far received from the officials in Slovenia and Croatia (energy advising program is included in the social care strategy); however, the Bulgarian and Macedonian administrations have so far not recognized the potentials of the proposed solutions. A variety of Bulgarian actors is at the moment mobilising to advocate the recommendations during the upcoming elections. Although not finished, the advocacy activities have already contributed to some important achievements. Advocacy work in Slovenia led to the establishment of a national program for households visits, where the REACH partner helped the government set up such program (see video). An important achievement is also that since late 2015 REACH practices are transferred to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and Montenegro.
Should you wish to see how to analyse energy poverty at national or local level; train vocational school professors and students or volunteers and unemployed people to perform energy audits; or engage decision makers and local actors in designing structural solutions to energy poverty, please, visit REACH project website at http://reach-energy.eu and feel welcome to make use of the project materials.