Well into the fifth year since the start of the economic crisis in Greece the gradual impoverishment of the middle strata of Greek society is evident, as are its effects on everyday life for the majority of the population. High taxes, low wages and pensions, a lack of liquidity in the Greek market and high energy prices are the main factors influencing the vulnerability of the population to various forms of poverty, energy poverty included. With the new economic reality has come a new awareness of how widely spread the phenomenon of energy poverty is not only among policy makers and experts but also among the Greek population, highlighting a departure from previous years conceptions and attitudes towards energy deficiency.
Obviously energy poverty existed in Greece well before 2013, but the extent of the phenomenon was much less prominent than today and the concepts of energy poverty and energy vulnerability were both unknown to the majority of the people and more focused on the quality of the building stock and other matters related more to engineering than to social issues deriving from them.
After the launch of the EVENT project I was invited to give a lecture on energy poverty and energy vulnerability for Panteion University, our project partner, at their postgraduate summer school on the island of Kythera in early September 2013. By that time the issue of energy poverty featured prominently on the news with a particular focus on the coming winter and the eminent problems with heating deficiency. The lecture audience was made up of Greek postgraduate students from Environmental Sciences, Engineering, Politics and Law, in their mid-20s from around Greece. Based on my previous experience with people not being able to understand immediately what energy deficiency was and not wanting to risk having to face a confused audience, I had prepared a detailed lecture explaining exactly what energy poverty and energy vulnerability were and how they connected to issues of social justice and social exclusion. To make things a little bit more interactive and to stimulate discussion, at the end of the presentation, I had added some of the questions from the energy diaries used in our EVENT project.
I was quite surprised to discover that some students were not only familiar with the concept of energy poverty, but in many cases they had already experienced some form of it or were conscious about being energy vulnerable. These students mainly lived in downgraded, traditionally low-income, urban areas around Athens, like Keratsini, hit by high rates of unemployment and social unrest. The examples that were used related mainly to heating. One of them mentioned that when she was looking for a flat to rent, she was repeatedly told that the residents of the building decided not to use central heating, meaning she would have to find a way to heat her flat herself. Another student referred to issues related to social resilience in the local communities by offering examples of group formations of building residents with the purpose of discussing and tackling collectively issues of energy poverty.
A lively debate based on the sample questions from the energy diaries followed, which picked when issues of social justice arouse. The argument started when another student argued that the people who could not afford paying for petrol in buildings using central heating should not use it at all as the cost would fall on the residents who actually contributed to the shared petrol reserve. Again I was amazed at how sensitive the issue of social justice had become, not only from the point of view that some of the students felt they were being on the receiving end of what they believed to be an injustice but also because they considered unethical to be aloof to social problems of this kind. Nonetheless the question which made the students rethink about their opinions and beliefs was whether or not they could afford to live on their own. What was interesting for me in their answers was how conscious the students were of the current financial situation in Greece and of their vulnerability regarding all forms of poverty. In their majority they were unemployed, with some of them working, mainly part-time, for very low wages and mostly without social security, so the prospect of leading an independent life away from their families or without the financial support of their parents was very gloomy.
The EVENT project team encountered the same level of awareness about energy poverty and energy vulnerability when we started conducting interviews with the households participating in our project in October 2013. The people we interviewed were very willing to talk about energy practices in their households, they freely shared their experiences on how they tackled issues of energy poverty and many of them offered their personal opinions regarding the austerity measures, describing how their lives had been affected since signing the first memorandum in 2010. In all, it seems that local perceptions on energy poverty in Greece have change. Energy deficiency is now topical not only among the experts and the policy makers but among the population as well and this is a clear indication both of the extent of the problem of energy poverty but also of the potential for future social resilience.