The Vulnerable Consumer Working Group (VCWG) of the European Commission hosted a workshop on ‘Energy vulnerability in Europe’ on the 27th of February 2014. The workshop, which took place in the DG Energy Headquarters in Brussels, was organized as part of the work programme of the EVALUATE project. It featured 17 presenters from 10 European countries, as well as a total of 40 participants from academia, decision-making bodies, industry and the third sector. Attendees included representatives of a range of European institutions, energy regulators and international bodies such as the World Health Organization. The workshop provided a unique opportunity for exchanging research findings, policy knowledge and practitioner opinions across the lines that traditionally divide science and policy. It also featured the results of a range of emergent researchers and projects in the field.
The event commenced with presentations by Stefan Bouzarovski from the EVALUATE team and Lara Blake from the VCWG. The former highlighted some of the main tenets of the energy vulnerability approach as it relates to the aims of the workshop, while describing the aims and structure of the EVALUATE project. The latter focused on the activities of the VCWG, as well as the understanding of vulnerability that is advanced in their documentation. Some of the policy recommendations that have been issued by the VCWG were also outlined here.
The workshop was organized into three thematic blocks, featuring research from Eastern, Western and Southern Europe, respectively, which were preceded by an introductory session on Europe-wide energy vulnerability issues.
Setting the context
The first workshop session started with an update of Harriet Thomson’s (University of Ulster/The University of York) doctoral research on indicators of fuel poverty in the EU based on Eurobarometer and EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (EU SILC) data. Her analysis showed significant differences between Member States and provided evidence of the challenges involved in working with citizens’ perceptions and self-reported indicators of fuel poverty. Harriet also presented results on the incidence of summertime thermal discomfort in the EU, an aspect seldom reported in the fuel poverty literature, and announced the release of an EU Index of Fuel Poverty based on her research in late 2014.
Ian Preston (Centre for Sustainable Energy, UK) highlighted in his presentation the role of domestic energy prices in driving fuel poverty rates in the UK, a controversial element under the UK’s new official definition of fuel poverty adopted after the Hills report. Other relevant issues brought forward by Ian’s presentation were the question of unclaimed benefits, the self-disconnection and under consumption, and low rates of energy provider switching rates of low income households, the threat posed rapidly rising electricity prices to households depending on electric heaters in the UK.
Matthias Braubach (WHO European Centre for Environment and Health) focused on the health and equity consequences of energy vulnerability in Europe. Based on a number of sources, he provided detailed evidence of the relationship between social, economic and infrastructural drivers of energy vulnerability and its physical and mental health effects. Matthias’ presentation also paid attention to the inequalities associated to indoor thermal comfort and other housing characteristics, and at the coping strategies employed by households to deal with the effect with economic crisis.
The second morning session started with a presentation by Bohumil Frantál, Stanislav Martinát and Eva Nováková (Institute of Geonics , Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic) on the social and environmental risks associated with coal energy in the Czech Republic. In their analysis, coal electricity is portrayed as a form of “landscape commodification and exportation which raises questions of environmental injustice or the uneven spatial and social distribution of benefits […] and costs”. Competing discourses about coal energy where also present in which the affordability argument is used to neutralise the various environmental and social concerns that the mining and combustion of this fossil fuel raise in the ‘coal districts’ of the Czech Republic.
Being the only speaker representing civil society organisations, Garret Tankosic-Kelly (SEE Change Net, Bosnia and Herzegovina) offered a critical evaluation of the role played by energy providers in the Western Balkans as a source of revenues for local political elites. This perception has fuelled protests not only in Bulgaria, where the government was forced to resign in February 2013 following mass demonstrations against increasing electricity prices, but also in Kosovo and Montenegro. Other relevant issues in the Balkan region raised in Garret’s presentation were the environmental hazards (e.g., air pollution) posed by power generation, the mismatch between investments in (renewable) generation capacity and energy efficiency, the challenge of meeting ambitious mitigation targets like those set by the EU’s 2020 climate and energy package, and the disproportionate burden –relative to average income levels – imposed on household budgets by the domestic energy prices in this region.
Sergio Tirado Herrero, Stefan Bouzarovski and Saska Petrova (University of Manchester) introduced in their presentation further theoretical elements for the operationalisation of energy vulnerability as a topic of research. Based on the descriptive analysis of statistical data from Eurostat and the central statistical offices of the four EVALUATE project countries (Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and Macedonia), they also presented a selection of results illustrating the complex patterns of spatial and temporal variation in energy vulnerability factors and the multi-scalar nature of domestic energy deprivation in Europe. The results of their on-going quantitative analysis also provided evidence of increasing energy vulnerability levels in Central and Eastern Europe and of the challenges in the measurement of energy vulnerability through indicators.
In the first intervention of the afternoon, Katrin Grossman (Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research, Germany) presented evidence on the relationship between domestic energy costs, the conditions of the housing stock and socio-spatial inequalities at the city level based on the results of the project ‘Energy efficient City of Delitzsch’ a shrinking city of the former GDR. The analysis first showed evidence of spatial segregation associated with high energy burdens and on the growing relevance of domestic energy costs, residential energy efficiency and thermal comfort as ‘pull factors’ for individual household relocation decisions at the urban scale. This was followed by an assessment of the interferences of energy policies with previously existing socio-spatial inequalities, which illustrates how, in the German case, energy vulnerability occurs also as a result a declining share of affordable housing and of housing companies and landlords’ decisions involving related to the building retrofitting. In particular, the fact that some low-income household are sometimes forced to leave their rented accommodation following an increase in rental prices resulting from retrofits for ‘neighbourhood stabilisation’ purposes was presented as a risk of increasing segregation and concentration of poor household in already deprived areas of the city.
Ute Dubois (ISG International Business School, France) presented an update of her on-going research of energy vulnerability issues in France, which pays special attention to the discussion about the different alternatives for an operational definition of ‘energy precariousness’ for measuring the extent of the phenomenon for both statistical purposes, at the national sub-national (regional) scales. Ute’s presentation also discussed the possibility of enlarging the ‘energy precariousness’ definition to incorporate transport costs, and the complexities associated with the overall increase of domestic energy burdens in France.
Françoise Bartiaux, Christophe Vandeschrick (Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium) and Rosie Day (University of Birmingham) closed the first afternoon session the preliminary results of the 2Genders (Generation and Gender ENergy DEprivation: Realities and Social policies) project. Their quantitative analysis is based on a survey not previously used in energy poverty/vulnerability research (GGP – the Generations and Gender Programme) and is exploring vulnerabilities associated with energy poverty such as a poor housing conditions, mobility issues, and elements of self-reported physical health, psycho-social health and social isolation, many of which have been seldom considered in energy vulnerability research. In its next step, the 2Genders project will analyse the similarities and complementarities of the quantitative results from GGP and SILC with qualitative data, all in the framing of the energy justice paradigm.
Two presentations featured in the last workshop session. First, Euan Phimister (University of Aberdeen) and Esperanza Vera-Toscano (CSIC, Spain) presented the results of their longitudinal research study (2007-2010) of the dynamics of energy poverty in Spain. The study aims to understand the similarities and differences between energy poverty and general poverty in this country. The main research focus is on issues related to energy poverty mobility by investigating: i) the extent of individual mobility into and out of energy poverty categories; ii) the effects of individual poverty on the proportion of individuals who are persistently energy poor; and iii) the extent to which the probability of leaving energy poverty changes as the length of time spent in energy poverty increases. Their findings suggest that although the majority of the sample were not considered energy poor, the total proportion of those who were at least one period in energy poverty over the four year period is substantially greater than the average energy poverty statistic reported for any single year. Still, the proportion of persistently energy poor individuals is less than the one of persistently income poor in the sample. Moreover, it was pointed out that energy poverty is a more dynamic status than general poverty. Thus, the findings showed that for individuals who have just started a spell in energy poverty the duration dependence with the conditional probability of exit after two periods in energy poverty is significantly smaller than the probability of exit after one period.
Then, Saska Petrova (University of Manchester) and Alexandra Prodromidou (International Faculty of the University of Sheffield, CITY College-Panteion University) moved the discussion to energy poverty in Greece by presenting the preliminary results from the EVENT (Energy Vulnerability and Alternative Economies in Northern Greece) project funded by the Royal Geographical Society (UK). The presented findings are based on empirical evidence gathered during the 2013 summer cooling season and the 2014 winter heating season with the aid of ethnographic research in the Thessaloniki area, Northern Greece. Petrova and Prodromidou addressed the key factors shaping energy vulnerability in Greece and how the lack of energy services in the home affects the everyday life of the 25 households included in the study. They pointed out that energy vulnerability is widespread across both urban and peri-urban areas, though households living in different parts of the city and its surroundings have experienced it in different ways. Their findings showed that patterns of domestic energy deprivation are more conspicuous in peri-urban areas, both socially – due to intense and close social ties – and infrastructurally – due to the physical visibility of newly-installed wood-burning chimneys and the storage of fuelwood outside people’s homes. Consequently, this often creates anxieties surrounding the possibility of stigmatization and exclusion. At the same time, members of urban households find themselves pushed into a lack of adequate domestic energy services due to the inclusion of various new taxes in the electricity bill, the inefficient built fabric, non-flexible heating systems and high petroleum prices.
Comments in the concluding discussion explored the extent to which a common definition of energy poverty/vulnerability is necessary and possible in the European context. It was pointed out that a definition might provide the issue the kind of visibility that it needs at the decision-making level and within the public; at the same time, there were opinions that a common definition is not possible due to the divergent range of circumstances, and the danger of imposing criteria that will solidify what is otherwise a highly fluid and precarious landscape of vulnerability. Several discussants emphasized the politically contingent nature of defining and targeting deprived populations. The possibilities for follow up action via common research programmes and policy frameworks were also featured here.