Introducing … “Fuel poverty measurement in Europe: a pilot study”

Our latest guest post focuses on a new project funded by the Eaga Charitable Trust, and co-ordinated by Harriet Thomson and Dr Carolyn Snell at the University of York. Until April 2014, they will conduct a collaborative study of fuel poverty measurement in Europe by developing a pilot survey of fuel poverty in eight EU Member States, and designing a series of toolkits to provide guidance on best practice for measuring fuel poverty. A steering group comprised of representatives from Universities and research organisations from across the eight pilot countries will provide guidance on the project.

Pilot household survey of fuel poverty

At the European level, there is no dedicated household survey of fuel or energy poverty, and an absence of standardised data concerning household fuel expenditure. This limits researchers to using subjective self-reported proxy indicators, such as perceived inability to afford to heat the home adequately, to measure fuel poverty across Europe. This approach has been undertaken by numerous researchers, including Whyley and Callender (1997) and Healy and Clinch (2002a) using European Community Household Panel data, and by EPEE (2009) and Thomson and Snell (2013) using EU Statistics on Income and Living Conditions (EU-SILC) data.

However, such proxy indicators are an imperfect measure of fuel poverty, particularly as they rely on subjective answers, and focus solely on adequate warmth, rather than on all energy services in the home, such as cooking and lighting. In the case of EU-SILC data, an additional concern is that respondents are asked about any combined arrears on gas, electricity and water bills, which fails to acknowledge expenditure on other fuel sources, and does not distinguish arrears on gas and electricity from water bill arrears, thus potentially inflating responses.

The project aims to develop a survey that will address the identified gaps in data, and overcome a number of existing shortcomings in currently available pan-European data. Firstly, respondents will be asked about their expenditure on all fuel types, rather than focussing exclusively on gas and electricity. This is important given that many households across Europe may rely on additional fuels, such as oil, firewood or coal, as highlighted by Bouzarovski et al (2012) and Tirado Herrero and Ürge-Vorsatz (2010), and thus energy affordability and experiences of fuel poverty may be underestimated in existing surveys. Secondly, the survey will depart from existing pan-EU surveys by exploring the potential for employing self-reported Likert-type scale variables, as used in Ireland by Healy and Clinch (2002b), rather than using binary variables, which fail to capture variation in experiences.

Lastly, the project team will develop a set of public opinion variables, which seek to question respondents on the concept of fuel/energy poverty, affordability of energy and their satisfaction with policy responses. These topics have not been addressed in any public opinion surveys to date, such as Eurobarometer.

The pilot survey will be conducted in the following eight countries: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom, and will be available in English, French and German. The pre-testing of fuel poverty variables in this pilot study will provide invaluable information on question wording and sequencing, range of responses, translation of terminology and concepts, questions which carry the highest likelihood of dropping out, and length of time to complete. The intended next steps following completion of the project will be to seek funding and collaborators for deploying a full probability-based EU28 household survey.

Measurement toolkits

At the national level, attempts to measure fuel poverty have been made in just seven of the twenty-eight Member States (Austria, Belgium, France, Hungary, Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom). However, many of these studies have incorrectly applied the UK’s previous 10 per cent definition with authors using a 10 per cent actual fuel expenditure threshold, without transferring the underlying methodology, in addition to using mean rather than median fuel expenditure figures. These inaccuracies are problematic for two reasons, firstly actual fuel expenditure is a poor measure of energy deprivation as low-income households often (and sometimes dangerously) underspend (Moore, 2012), and secondly, fuel expenditure is asymmetrically distributed, thus a mean value can be affected by extreme values (Fahmy, 2011).

Often the UK’s approach is unsuitable for application in other European countries as they lack housing surveys comparable to the English Housing Survey, from which to model ‘required’ fuel expenditure (Moore, 2012). In addition, the drivers of fuel poverty are likely to differ between countries, and any model of fuel poverty will need to consider this.

The toolkits will be designed to promote a better understanding of fuel poverty in Member States where fuel poverty is not currently recognised, and promote best practice in measuring energy consumption and fuel poverty by providing guidance on suitable methods for varying types of available data. The toolkits will initially be available in English, French and German, with the possibility of expanding the range of languages if funding opportunities arise.

Summary

To summarise, this project will:

  • Pilot a household survey of fuel poverty in 8 EU countries
  • Question respondents on their expenditure on all fuel types
  • Develop Likert-type scale variables to replace binary variables for subjective indicators, in order to capture variations in lived experiences
  • Devise a set of public opinion variables to question respondents on the concept of fuel/energy poverty, affordability of energy and their satisfaction with policy responses
  • Create a set of toolkits to promote best practice in measuring energy consumption and fuel poverty, with guidance on suitable methods for differing types of available data.

References

Bouzarovski, S., et al. (2012) Energy poverty policies in the EU: a critical perspective. Energy Policy 49: 76–82.

EPEE, (2009) Tackling Fuel Poverty in Europe: Recommendations Guide for Policy Makers. http://www.fuel-poverty.com/files/WP5_D15_EN.pdf

Fahmy, E. (2011) The definition and measurement of fuel poverty: A Briefing Paper to inform Consumer Focus’ submission to the Hills fuel poverty review. Consumer Focus, London.

Healy, J. D., and Clinch, P. (2002a) Fuel poverty in Europe: A cross-country analysis using a new composite measure. Environmental Studies Research Series, University College Dublin.

Healy, J.D. and Clinch, J.P. (2002b) Fuel poverty, thermal comfort and occupancy: results of a national household-survey in Ireland. Applied Energy, 73: 329-343

Moore, R. (2012) Definitions of fuel poverty: Implications for policy. Energy Policy, 49: 19-26

Thomson, H., and Snell, C. (2013) Quantifying the prevalence of fuel poverty across the European Union. Energy Policy, 52: 563-572

Tirado Herrero, S. and Ürge-Vorsatz, D. (2010) Fuel Poverty in Hungary: A first assessment. Central European University, Hungary

Whyley, C., and Callender, C. (1997) Fuel poverty in Europe: evidence from the European Household Panel Survey. National Energy Action, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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