Energy poverty in Spain: the politicisation of energy vulnerability at an early stage

By Sergio Tirado Herrero

Research on energy poverty in the EU (Healy, 2004) found out substantially high percentages of population unable to heat their home adequately in Southern Member States (Italy, Greece, Portugal and Spain) during 1990s. These data may reflect cross-country cultural differences in perceptions about thermal comfort and the affordability of domestic energy, but also be a consequence of the poor thermal performance of homes built in regions with mild climates.

In Spain, some early attempts to measure the incidence of energy poverty were produced in the framework of the European fuel Poverty and Energy Efficiency (EPEE) project. However, it was not until last year when the first proper assessment of the extent and characteristics of energy poverty was undertaken. The Asociación de Ciencias Ambientales (Environmental Sciences Association) presented in March 2012 a study that estimated energy poverty rates following the expenditure-based and consensual or self-reported measuring approaches. The results, calculated on data from the Spanish Household Budget Survey (HBS) and the EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU SILC), indicate that approximately 10% of Spanish households (equivalent to 4 million people) were in energy poverty as of 2010. The evolution of both indicators shows a sustained increase in energy poverty rates since the onset of the global financial crisis (2007-2008). Note that the recorded change in energy poverty rates seems to be unrelated to the severity of the winter as measured by the number of annual heating degree-days.

 Energy poverty rates Expenditure-based and consensual or self-reported energy poverty rates in Spain 2004-2010 (% households in energy poverty). Source: Tirado Herrero et al. (2012)

The study also assessed the socio-economic characteristics of the Spanish energy poor. Disaggregated results indicate on the one hand that households with unemployed working-age members are twice as likely to be in energy poverty; on the other hand, they evidence that energy poverty is growing fast in unemployed households – see Figure 2. Given the double-digit increase in Spanish unemployment figures (from 7.8% in July 2007 to 26.9% in May  2013, the highest rate of the EU according to Eurostat), it is foreseeable that, compared to 2010,  a larger fraction of the Spanish population is now in energy poverty.

Expenditure EP rates unemployed

Expenditure-based energy poverty rates in Spain 2004-2010, disaggregated by main income source of the household (% households in energy poverty). Source: Tirado Herrero et al. (2012)

 The significance of domestic energy deprivation issues is growing in parallel with the ongoing deterioration of the Spanish economy, which is progressively worsening the purchasing power and living conditions of households at the bottom but also in the middle class. However, Spanish legislators still show a basic, imprecise understanding of energy poverty and vulnerability issues. This is evidenced by the uneven responses provided by the main political parties in a questionnaire on socio-environmental themes sent by the Asociación de Ciencias Ambientales prior to the 2011 parliamentary elections.

In late weeks, some symptoms suggesting that energy poverty may be finding its way into the agenda of mainstream political parties. Last June 25th, the main opposition party, centre-left PSOE, presented a motion relative to the fight against energy poverty which advocated for a “full and adequate transposition” of EC Directives 2009/72/CE and 2009/73/CE concerning the common rules for the internal market in electricity and natural gas, and proposing the approval, in three months’ time, of a fuel poverty strategy with a dedicated public budget line. The motion also proposes prioritising the thermal retrofits of homes, incorporating energy poverty criteria for the revision of electricity tariff-setting system and the extension of the bono social – a protected electricity tariff for vulnerable households.

In parallel, a small coalition of leftist parties (Izquierda Plural) presented on June 26th a proposal for an overall reformulation of Spain’s energy policy and regulatory framework. This motion advocated for a number of substantial changes, including a moratorium on fracking and unconventional gas exploration, a more stringent allocation of carbon emission permits, a more decisive support of renewable energy generation, legislative support for renewable self-generation through net metering, etc. It explicitly addressed energy poverty by requesting “social prices” for electricity, natural gas and bottled gas and an audit of the regulated electricity tariff-setting system. The latter is often blamed by consumer protection and civil society organisations for Spain’s high domestic electricity prices (as compared to the EU average) and for the growing 30 billion Euro deficit that Spanish consumers owe to utility companies as of 2013.

More ambitious and comprehensive than PSOE’s, the motion presented by the leftist coalition Izquierda Plural was rejected last July 3rd as it only received the support of 23 Members of the Spanish Parliament. Just one MP of PSOE voted in favour. The remaining 109 PSOE MPs abstained on supporting the motion of Izquierda Plural even though its purpose was similar to their own. The latter is not likely to go through either given that the 186 MPs of the ruling party (centre-right Partido Popular) are expected to vote against PSOE’s motion too.

This is the first time that energy (or fuel) poverty is discussed as such in the Spanish parliament. The two motions described perhaps inaugurate a time in which energy poverty will enter the institusionalised political debate in Spain, probably within the broader framework of the discussions around energy, social and climate policies. That energy poverty becomes a politicised issue opens up the opportunity to research how energy vulnerability becomes an electorally salient issue and interacts with ideologies and political discourses.


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