Rising fuel poverty in Europe: a growing source of concern

EPEE, heating, housing, Rising fuel povertyIn Europe, constant increases in energy prices lead several million households to turn off their heating in the wintertime in order to reduce their energy bills. Governments have decided to take steps to address this fuel poverty, but certain measures are also possible at the household level itself.

Heat or eat: in 2008, 3.3 million British households had to make this choice. France reached the same figure this year. The issue is therefore particularly worrying. In fact, the French and British governments decided to tackle the problem by setting up inter-ministerial task forces and observatories. As part of its Intelligent Energy programme, the European Union also co-finances the European Poverty and Energy Efficiency project (EPEE), which focuses specifically on renovating the housing of low-income households. The EPEE project estimates that 50 to 125 million people are in fuel poverty in Europe.

The diversity of situations in Europe

In 2009, according to the data gathered by the EPEE project in five countries (Belgium, Spain, France, Great Britain, Italy), an average of 8% of households were unable to keep their homes adequately warm, with a peak of 15% for Great Britain. Likewise, 16% of households lived in buildings with leaks or humidity (23% in Italy). And finally, 5% were in arrears with their bills.

In spite of the diversity of these situations, the EPEE project proposes a common definition for fuel poverty: “Fuel poverty is a household’s difficulty, sometimes even inability, to adequately heat its dwelling at a fair, income-indexed price.” In France and the United Kingdom, a household is considered to be in fuel poverty if it needs to spend more than 10% of its income to maintain a satisfactory heating regime. Statistics institutes call this percentage the “fuel poverty ratio”. The reasons for the dramatic rise we are currently witnessing in the number of households affected are simple: the households with the lowest incomes live in the most dilapidated housing. Their energy consumption per square metre is therefore excessively high.

Solutions include renovating housing, providing assistance to struggling households, but also taking steps to change people’s behaviour.

The public authorities decided to set up housing renovation programmes. In 2010, for example, the French government launched the “Habiter mieux” (better living) programme, with a budget of 1.25 billion euros to assist households with carrying out thermal insulation work on 300,000 homes by 2017.

The households themselves can also qualify for assistance. In France, reduced energy tariffs called “tarifs sociaux de l’énergie” have been created by EDF and GDF, France’s two major energy providers. EDF has also implemented a “minimum level” of electricity supply, so that people who are unable to pay their electricity bill can still benefit from a minimal power supply to run essential appliances such as refrigerators.

But individual actions must also be strongly encouraged. In London, for example, The Telegraph met with Jelena Kiselova, a young woman who encourages the people in her neighbourhood to reduce their energy bills. Her advice is very practical and includes, for instance, installing heat reflectors behind radiators and only running the washing machine for a full load.

Over the coming years, fuel poverty is set to increase as a consequence of the financial crisis, higher energy prices and rising heating bills.

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