Energy poverty on the EU agenda (again)

Some readers may have seen the European Parliament’s latest announcement on energy poverty (pdf) – in the form of a resolution (non-binding suggestions/guidelines) on meeting the antipoverty target in the light of increasing household costs. This is an excellent, forward-thinking document, and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) as well as the Greens–European Free Alliance (The Greens-EFA) group – who as outlined in an earlier post have been leading on efforts to address energy poverty – should be applauded for their role in bringing about this resolution. Several EVALUATE team members have been involved with this process, by way of presentations and attendance at workshops, as well as by providing feedback on background documents.

The 20 page resolution document starts by setting out the basic context for poverty in the EU, noting that there has been a substantial increase in the number of people at risk of poverty or social exclusion across the EU, from 117 million in 2008 to 123 million in 2013, which is counter to the EU’s strategic objective of reducing this number by at least 20 million by 2020. The resolution further notes that a high proportion of citizens are unable to keep their home warm, pay utility bills on time, and keep their home free from damp, rot and leaks. It speculates that energy poverty is likely to worsen in future years, particularly due to poor housing conditions and increasing end-user energy costs.

Following on from this, a total of 83 wide-ranging recommendations are made for addressing various aspects of poverty, of which there are 7 energy poverty-related recommendations that particularly stand out (Table 1):

2. Calls on the Member States to sign up to a winter heating disconnection moratorium so as to ensure that during a defined winter period no household can be cut off from energy or that those who are must be reconnected… 4. Calls on the Member States to ensure a more efficient, targeted and more carefully monitored use of the European Structural and Investment Funds (ESI Funds) by national, regional and local authorities in order to tackle energy poverty 

16.…stresses the importance of developing indicators and collecting data on household consumption and costs in relation to energy poverty in order to provide reliable information and allow for evidence based policy making and effective monitoring; 
 34. Stresses that there is so far no definition of energy poverty at Union level and therefore it is very difficult to properly assess the seriousness, the causes and the consequences of this aspect of poverty in the Union; calls on the Commission to develop with stakeholders a common definition of energy poverty and to define the factors contributing to the vulnerability of households;
35. calls on the Commission to provide impact assessments and information on best practices to fight energy poverty in the Member States in this context; emphasises that energy must be affordable to all Union citizens; 
 38. Stresses that a significant proportion of people affected by energy poverty are at risk of poverty and social exclusion, and as a consequence they cannot afford the needed initial upfront investment of energy efficiency appliances such as insulation or renewable energy resources…
42. Calls on the Member States and the EU to provide microcredits or loans free of interest or at low rates via (e.g. the EIB) to low-income households to support them in the upfront investment in renewables or energy efficiency, such as insulation, solar energy and energy efficient appliances; 

Table 1. Selection of key energy poverty recommendations. Emphasis added by author

In sum, these recommendations focus on preventing heating disconnections during winter, structural inequalities relating to energy poor households accessing energy schemes, ways to target existing funding streams more effectively, the need for a pan-European definition of energy poverty, the importance of developing statistical indicators and collecting new data, and the necessity of impact assessments and best practice information. However, what does this resolution mean in practical terms and what is the next step?

The European Parliament’s stance is certainly not a new position, but rather a renewal of earlier support for enhancing energy poverty support and alleviation. In a joint paper with Dr Carolyn Snell and Professor Christine Liddell that was published last week in a special open access journal issue on fuel poverty, I present a historical look at the EU’s discourse on energy poverty. This paper finds that concerns about energy poverty (framed in terms of fuel poverty) were first raised at the EU-scale in 2001, and between 2001 and 2006 there were preliminary discussions on the problem. From 2007, a period of legal recognition for energy poverty began with the preparation and subsequent publication of the 2009 internal gas and electricity market directives. 2011 marked a new phase in the EU discourse, with an enhanced focus on energy poverty and vulnerable customers. During the time since 2007, the European Parliament has repeatedly called for, among other things, a pan-EU definition of energy poverty, national energy poverty action plans, and greater support for alleviating the problem.

A key issue has been the power dynamics inherent within the EU, namely that the European Parliament cannot initiate legislation, and that it shares the powers of amendment and decision with the Council of Ministers, leading to situations where relevant European Parliament amendments to the 2009 internal energy market directives were rejected by the European Council. There is evidence to suggest that some Member States have been involved with lobbying efforts to block pan-European policy developments on energy poverty. For example findings from interviews by Bouzarovski and Petrova (2015) indicate that Germany has been particularly unwilling to recognise a new group of vulnerable people because it could cause significant domestic political difficulties (Bouzarovski and Petrova, 2015: 15).

In spite of this backdrop, there are reasons to be optimistic. The European Commission has recently signaled greater interest in energy poverty in the European Energy Union strategy launched in the second half of last year. Within this document the European Commission provides a description of energy poverty, and in this context focuses on affordability, efficiency, and vulnerable consumers. The associated documentation identifies the need for a combination of measures to reduce energy poverty. In addition, the European Commission has funded two new projects worth ca. €1,000,000 to asses the impact of the crisis, and review existing and possible new measures in the Member States. Overall, this is a strategically important time as several new entry points into policy are offered by the Energy Union strategy. The entry points include full implementation of the third Internal Energy Market Package at the Member State level, and reviews of the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive.



Bouzarovski, S. and Petrova, S. (2015). The EU Energy Poverty and Vulnerability Agenda: An Emergent Domain of Transnational Action. In J. Tosun, S. Biesenbender, and K. Schulze, (Eds.). Energy Policy Making in the EU: Building the Agenda. Berlin: Springer, pp. 129-144.

Thomson, H., Snell, C. and Liddell, C. (2016) Fuel poverty in the European Union: a concept in need of definition? People, Place and Policy, 10: 5-24.