Session 5Tackling energy poverty

Energy Poverty (in some countries referred to as Fuel Poverty), impacts people all over the world. It refers to insufficient access to affordable and accessible energy sources that are needed to heat and cool homes, cook food, and provide access to electricity. In the global north, people are considered to be in energy poverty when a large percentage of their monthly income has to go towards energy costs, and therefore difficult choices have to be made, such as between food and heating or cooling. In the global south, the definition is the same, and in addition people may have to spend a large percentage of their time finding fuel sources or using fuel sources that are more polluting or harmful, for activities such as cooking. In all contexts energy poverty can result in detrimental impacts on physical and mental health and wellbeing.

There are many intersectional issues that arise when looking at energy poverty, such as gender and education. In all parts of the world women have an average lower income than men, making them more vulnerable to energy poverty; and energy poverty increases hardship in accessing education, either for at home studying, or due to the aforementioned impacts of living in inadequate homes. It is widely understood that the current make up of many energy systems across the globe do little to address the systemic issues that lead to energy poverty; such as increasing energy prices, low household incomes, profits for service provision and inefficient buildings and appliances. Energy is such a vital part of modern living that the UN has called on all nations to achieve universal access to modern, sustainable and renewable energy services by 2030 (you can read more about this in their Sustainable Energy for All programme).

Click here to read our best practice guides on municipalities and energy poverty.

Energy Efficiency and Energy Poverty

In the previous section we understood the importance of reducing energy use for the energy transition as well as learnt about what local authorities are currently doing. We briefly touched on ‘energy poverty’ by highlighting that reducing energy use, if done well, offers an opportunity to eradicate energy poverty and improve living standards for all. Here it is important to be clear that the most effective way for individuals to reduce energy use is to make homes more energy-efficient, which a vast amount of people are either unable to afford and/or cannot do due to not owning the homes they live in. Occupants of energy-efficient homes are likely to spend less money on lighting, heating, or cooling, resulting in more spending power for purchase of food and other essential items.

In 2020, there were an estimated 13.2 per cent of households (3.16 million) in fuel poverty in England; across the EU between 50 and 125 million people are in fuel poverty. This is a significant problem. Check out the chunk below to see what Plymouth have done to address this problem.

Centring those most affected in energy poverty solutions

Centring those who are most impacted and being led by their needs is of utmost importance in this work. Without this, solutions that are put forward to help those most in need can end up not being fit for purpose. For example, in the UK we have seen a government preference for the installation of heat pumps (as a carbon saving measure), however without complementary work to make homes more energy efficient, there is a huge risk that households bills will become even more untenable than they are currently as heat pumps use a huge amount of electricity. Meaningful work to understand the needs of different households with regards to addressing energy poverty is key. To understand more about why this is essential, check out the work that Alice Jones did as part of the mpower project, and the mPOWER podcast in which we interviewed Lucie Middlemiss. You can listen on youtube or soundcloud.

Renewable generation, public ownership and energy poverty

Tackling energy poverty is not always straightforward in a privatised energy system. There are usually few monetary incentives for energy producers and suppliers to encourage households to reduce their energy use - after all private companies make their profit from selling more and more energy. This is where local authorities and public ownership of the energy system can make a crucial difference - not only in helping reduce carbon emissions but in reducing energy poverty and delivering better quality of life for millions.

Community and public owned renewable energy is a way of ensuring an energy source where the cost will be less likely to fluctuate and there will be no need to make profit for shareholders; thus prices can be standardised. With regards to energy poverty, it means that tariffs can be introduced based on people's wages (check out the work that took place in Nicaragua below), or on lower rates that suit everyone.

Check out the fantastic work that is taking place in Athens below.

Watch the presentation here or find out more on the podcast. 

For more information on renewable generation, check out our next session.