This article is part of our special report Can Energy Union build healthier homes?.
An estimated 54 million Europeans suffer from energy poverty, according to a European Commission analysis, which blames rising prices, low income and energy inefficient homes for forcing people to choose between eating or heating.
You are in energy poverty if you cannot afford to heat your home at an affordable cost. Almost 11% of the EU’s population are faced with that reality, according to the Commission.
Despite this, less than a third of the member states officially recognise energy poverty, and only a few define it in their national laws.
Consumers spend on average 6.4% of their total consumption on electricity, gas, heating and cooling – up by 15% compared to five years ago.
Fuel poverty is not about being poor, but about a combination of low-quality housing and high energy prices causing financial difficulties, and ultimately compromising health and well-being.
There are three basic solutions to fuel poverty; increasing household income, reducing prices or cutting demand through energy efficiency measures.
The responsibility for ending energy poverty lies with national governments but the European Commission’s Energy Union strategy can be harnessed to help alleviate the problem.
Commissioner Věra Jourová, speaking in London in February, said, “We have now a unique opportunity to set in place an Energy Union that works in the interests of consumers.”
As explained in Monday’s Special Report (18 April), the renovation of Europe’s inefficient building stock has been identified as one way to meet the Energy Union’s twin goals of fighting climate change and boosting energy security.
But, as reported, renovations for efficiency can also bring health benefits at the same time as cost savings.
In London, Jourová said, “We could ensure that funding schemes are easy available to all vulnerable consumers to invest in energy-efficiency improvements, especially in buildings.”
Around 40% of energy used in the EU is consumed in buildings, of which 80% is used for heating and cooling.
While such schemes are a member state competence, the European Commission can incentivise better practice through Energy Union related legislation, some of which is expected this year.
Bills expected include revisions to the Energy Efficiency Directive and the Energy Performance in Buildings Directive.
A report by think tank Insight Energy for the European Commission identified energy efficiency measures for retrofitting buildings as vital to address energy poverty.
Strong incentives to encourage low income households to put energy efficiency measures in place, as well as raising awareness, are needed, it said.
But it also called on the Commission to allocate a higher share of EU funds to renovation programmes for the energy-poor, low-income and vulnerable categories of people.
The Renovate Europe campaign said, “Improving the energy performance of buildings addresses a root cause of energy poverty.
“An energy efficiency home guarantees permanent energy savings year on year and leads to lower energy bills for all citizens.”
The Velux Group is carrying out an affordable and easy to reproduce climate renovation in Anderlecht, Belgium. As well as cutting energy bills, it also improves the indoor climate, which can have health and well-being benefits.
Energy costs for a 1920s 80 squared metre semi-detached house will be cut by €4,200 each year, the company estimates.
The bottom 20% in Belgium live on an estimated €11,000 a year, according to the OECD. Assuming a constant rent, the energy saving equals a 40% increase in disposable income.
Bulgarians suffer the most
Eurostat figures for 2014, the most recent year with complete results, showed that almost half of Bulgarians suffer from energy poverty.
40% of its 6.9 million 2014 population – about 2.8 million people – can’t afford to heat their homes.
The figures, obtained by EURACTIV.com, revealed that just over a third of Greeks (32.9%) – more than 3.5 million people – were in the same situation.
28% of the Portuguese population, 27.5% of Cypriots, 26.5% of Lithuanians and 22.1% of Maltese are in energy poverty, according to the EU’s statistics service.
Latvia (16.8%), Romania (12.3%), Hungary (11.6%) come next in the scale. Italy scores at 18% and Spain 11%.
Energy poverty is particularly prevalent in southern and central European households but by no means exclusively so.
The United Kingdom has a higher percentage (9.3%) of its total population – equivalent to about 5.85 million people – and more people suffering from energy poverty than Poland (9%).
That is less than the 10,2% average across the EU. 4.9% of Germans and 5.9% of French people suffer from energy poverty.
Luxembourg has the lowest levels of energy poverty, 0.6%, but it is a small country. Just 0.8% of Sweden’s 9.6 million population, about 76,800 people, live below the energy poverty line.
The Energy Union will cut across a number of policy sectors including energy, transport, research and innovation, foreign policy, regional and neighbourhood policy, trade and agriculture, according to the EU executive's plans.
Plans for the Union have developed beyond questions of security of supply to encompass issues such as fighting climate change.
The Renovate Europe campaign says that, thanks to modern technology, buildings' energy demands can be cut by 80%. But, it adds, in order for that to happen, there needs to be an effective regulatory and legislative framework in place.