In the latest contribution to our series on ‘just transition’, Monique Goyens argues that it must address the people finding it hard to pay their energy bills.
An estimated 50 million around the European Union struggle to keep their homes warm and pay their energy bills. Many suffer from the same problems: poorly insulated homes, ill-suited tariffs, insufficient advice on how to save energy or a combination of all three.
The lowest income earners in the EU spend an increasingly large share of their budget on energy—rising from 6 per cent in 2000 to 9 per cent in 2014. In the short term, for this group, it makes more sense to use energy more efficiently than to invest in solar panels, heat pumps or pellet stoves. It will also deliver faster savings.
The choice should not however be between having a warm home and having food on the table. In making their homes more efficient, people consume less energy to heat their living space and can more easily pay their bills.
But getting people to take action can be complex. Those at risk of energy poverty might feel overwhelmed and prioritise solving other problems, such as warmer clothing or food. Often, they might not know what solutions are out there.
For governments and energy advisers to upload advice about insulation to a website isn’t enough. That advice needs to get out to people. Human contact also helps.
At BEUC, the European Consumer Organisation, we think we have found a simple, yet innovative, way to reach out to people in, or at risk of, energy poverty. This is being trialled in the STEP project (Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty) in which we are partners and which has received Horizon 2020 funding. If the results meet our expectations, there is a strong case for rolling out the modus operandi on a larger scale and to other EU countries.
Consumer organisations are generally trusted brands because of their independence. They also tend to have good experience in providing energy advice. This is one way of tackling the ‘trust’ issue related to energy poverty: people at risk don’t always trust those providing the advice, usually coming from the private sector.
What consumer organisations might lack—the contact with those who need help most—can be addressed by teaming up with organisations which already have the direct contact. This is where frontline workers, who already provide health, food or financial advice to vulnerable people, come in.
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Through STEP, each consumer organisation is partnering up with frontline-worker organisations in different EU countries, to train their workers to deal with situations of energy poverty. This way, either the workers will be able to provide advice directly to people or they will be able to recommend these people to consumer organisations which can then intervene.
The support includes installing thermostats, taping draught-risk windows and providing information about relevant tariffs—and, if need be, about where to apply for financial support to install more costly insulation needs. Many countries have such schemes, but they are under-used. The project is due to run for the next two years.
At this initial stage, it’s already clear structural improvements will still be needed to deal with energy poverty. Some EU countries do not yet have a formal policy on this—let alone well-resourced or easily accessible schemes to provide financial support.
There is also too little done to warn people of the risks of energy poverty and what they can do to abate them. Consumer organisations can’t take on this role alone. Governments have to get more involved.
STEP will produce comprehensive reports about what support is available in the project’s countries to help those struggling to pay their energy bills. There will also be all-important policy recommendations to governments.
As Europe prepares for its European Green Deal, and digests the efforts necessary to change our carbon-hungry society, it’s clear that different categories of the population will need different solutions. People finding it hard to keep their homes warm will require a different form of help from households with more disposable income.
Yet energy savings can cut CO2 emissions, lead to substantial financial savings and relieve pressure on people’s wallets—all at the same time. So the just transition must be about getting the right support to the right people. And it’s about making the sustainable choice the easy choice.
For those struggling to heat their homes, at this stage, that mostly means simple and cheap ways to cut their energy costs.