Update on EVALUATE’s summer fieldwork

Since the beginning of the year the qualitative aspect of EVALUATE’s fieldwork has been on-going.  As I said in an earlier blog, we’ve been using in-depth and multi-method approach involving diaries, an energy audit of participants’ homes, and a series of three household interviews with each participant – two taking place in the winter/spring of this year, and a third in the summer months.  This range of data is allowing us to gain a rich and detailed picture of people’s varying situations and their lived experiences of energy vulnerability.

The fieldwork is now in its final stages, with the third round of summer interviews currently underway in Skopje and Gdansk, whilst in Budapest this work is almost completed other than a final two interviews that will take place in August.  Unfortunately in Prague a change in circumstances meant that we have been unable to undertake a third set of household interviews in this city.  Nonetheless, we’re confident that with over 300 interviews conducted in total we will have a very rich and detailed dataset to analyse!

The summer household interviews provide an update the participants’ situations since the last time they were interviewed, allowing us to examine how dynamic household circumstances can influence energy vulnerability (see more below).  They also allow us to discuss issues of excessive heat and the ability to keep adequately cool during the hot summer months – this is particularly relevant since EVALUATE’s earlier quantitative surveys revealed that the most commonly-reported thermal comfort issue across five of the case study neighbourhoods was the inability to maintain adequate cooling during summer.

Gerda conducts a household interview

In late June I was able to travel to Budapest and assisted Gerda (our local researcher) in doing 10 household interviews.  Although we have yet to conduct a full analysis of our extensive data, some preliminary themes started to emerge during my visit.  These include:

Temporally dynamic circumstances and needs: A number of Budapest participants noted how their ability to afford their energy costs had changed since the last time they were interviewed, due to alterations in their circumstances.  For example, splitting up with a partner, losing a job (more broadly job insecurity seems to be a major issue in the Hungarian economy in recent years, related to wider processes of neoliberalisation), and illness/injury were all reported as having a negative impact on household income – thus decreasing people’s ability to afford their energy bills.

Sunlight exposure: An important structural factor that shaped a household’s vulnerability to excessive summer heat was the size of windows and the extent to which they were exposed to direct sunlight during the daytime.  There were several cases of households whose homes were uncomfortably warm in the summer due to large, south-facing windows that absorbed the sunlight.  Households that had more comfortable temperatures generally had windows that were shaded from the direct glare of the sun – sometimes by trees or other buildings, and sometimes by window shutters that they were able to close when the sun was too powerful.   In previous studies on the drivers of energy poverty, this is a factor that has not been explored.

The apartment of one participant was kept cool in the summer by the natural shading provided by trees.  However, her neighbours (shown on the right of this image) were more exposed to the direct sunlight and so often suffered from uncomfortable temperatures during the afternoon.

Gender: Amongst several of the households there was a clear gendered dimension to how energy poverty was experienced and managed.  For example, in several of the cases I visited, women were the ones who tended to ‘manage’ the household energy bills and other budgeting matters – arguably, therefore, they also felt the brunt of the stress and worry associated with struggling to afford their household’s energy costs.  Furthermore, they also tended to spend more time at home, thus suffering from issues such as thermal discomfort for longer periods of time.

Overall, these themes all point to some exciting directions for our work and potentially future publications.  We will be sure to examine them further as the data analysis develops!