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.

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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.

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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!

The EU is key to research excellence in the UK 

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In response to current debates surrounding the EU membership referendum in the United Kingdom, members of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy at the University of Manchester took a group photo to highlight the extent to which their scientific work has benefited from EU research funding.

CURE currently hosts four EU funded research projects (EVALUATE, Triangulum, RESIN and COMBI) with a total value of over 30 million Euro. These projects alone have directly created more than 10 additional jobs in the UK. All of our members have benefited from the activities stemming from these projects as well as other EU research and exchange opportunities.

On a per capita basis, the UK is the second largest recipient of EU competitive research funding and the top performer in the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA), which are awarded solely on the basis of scientific excellence (see this report for more information).

Retrofitting the City

Readers of this blog are invited to a discussion around the themes of the book Retrofitting the City: Residential Flexibility, Resilience and the Built Environment‘ by Professor Stefan Bouzarovski.

The event will feature presentations by Professor Simon Marvin (University of Sheffield), Dr Ritsuko Ozaki (Imperial College London) and Slavomira Ferenčuhová (Masaryk University). It will take place at the Ziferblat in Manchester (23 Edge Street, Northern Quarter, M4 1HW), between 2.30 and 5.30 pm on the 25th of May 2016. The event is supported by the Manchester Architecture Centre and cities@manchester.

 

BookPoster[1]

Journal Special Issue on fuel poverty

This post summarises the articles that EVALUATE and CURE researchers recently contributed to a Special Issue of the journal People, Place and Policy: ‘International Perspectives on Fuel Poverty’. It is a high-quality special issue and readers of this blog are encouraged to access the full articles (which are all open access) if they’d like to know more.

Harriet Thomson, alongside Carolyn Snell of the University of York and Christine Liddell of Ulster University, co-authors an article entitled “Fuel poverty in the European Union: a concept in need of definition?”  The paper analyses policy documents to trace the emergence of discussions and deliberations around fuel poverty, energy poverty and vulnerable customers at the EU-level.  The paper reveals that fuel poverty concerns have been a feature of European discussions since 2001, and that contrary to the European Commission’s lack of support for a European-wide definition of fuel poverty, many of the EU institutions and consultative committees are in favour of such a common European definition.  The authors themselves conclude by arguing that a European-wide definition of fuel poverty is vital for increasing the recognition of the issue amongst EU Member States, although they caution that it should avoid being overly prescriptive.

Neil Simcock, Gordon Walker and Rosie Day begin to tackle the question of ‘what energy-uses matter?’ in their paper “Fuel poverty in the UK: beyond heating?”.  Specifically, they investigate how different energy-uses are incorporated into definitions and discourses of fuel poverty in UK policy documents and by national NGOs.  They find that to some degree official definitions of fuel poverty in the UK do go beyond heating to include multiple other energy-uses. However, this is not reflected in dominant policy and NGO discourses which predominantly frame fuel poverty as solely a lack of adequate space-heating – similar to much of the academic research on the topic.  The authors conclude by arguing that there is a case for a greater recognition of non-heating energy services in fuel poverty discourses and policy measures, and they identify two areas (related to household coping strategies and the unequal distribution of inefficiency appliances) that warrant further research and debate.

Stefan Bouzarovski co-authors a paper with Jenni Cauvain of the University of Nottingham entitled “Energy vulnerability in multiple occupancy housing: a problem that policy forgot.”  The paper shows that Housing in Multiple Occupancy (HMO) can be particularly vulnerable to fuel poverty because the sector contains some of the UK’s worst housing stock, and tenants typically have reduced housing and social security rights alongside reduced control of (or sometimes complete absence of) basic energy services. Despite this, HMO is largely absent from UK policies governing energy efficiency and fuel poverty.  The paper argues that this situation is partly due to hegemonic cultural norms that associate housing as ‘properly’ occupied by single-family units, alongside negative imagery that stigmatises HMOs and the residents living within them as ‘problems’.  The lower housing standards found amongst HMOs thus become naturalised and accepted as simply ‘the ways things are.’  The authors argue that to overcome these inequalities there must be a recognition and acceptance of HMOs as a necessary and even welcome part of the UK housing mix, which requires exposing and tackling the prejudices associated with this form of tenure.

Finally, former EVALUATE researcher Sergio Tirado Herrero co-authors a paper with Luis Jiménez Meneses, “Energy poverty, crisis and austerity in Spain.”  Drawing on a range of quantitative data from the period 2004-2012, the paper investigates the links between the economic crisis and associated austerity and the prevalence of energy poverty, taking Spain as a case study.  The findings suggest that the increase in domestic energy deprivation levels in Spain since 2008 occurred in parallel with a rapid surge in unemployment rates and domestic energy prices, especially of electricity. The findings also indicate substantial geographic differences in energy poverty levels across Spanish regions (Autonomous Communities) because of differences in climatic and socio-economic conditions.  The authors argue that energy poverty levels were thus the result of both structural and short-term factors, with the economic crisis exacerbating wider socio-spatial divides.  However, that the current national policy framework tends to offer linear, short-term, and sometimes inadequately-targeted solutions.

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.

 

References

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.