Czech coal mining regions confronted with ‘hidden’ energy poverty

About 14 % of households in the Ústecký region face problems paying their heating bills, according to research. [josefkubes / Shutterstock]

While Czech coal mining regions supply heat and electricity to the whole country, local people are often unable to afford heating their own homes, researchers say. More broadly, Czechia is struggling to meet its EU reporting obligations on energy poverty, an issue common to other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

About 14% of households in the Ústecký region – one of Czechia’s three coal mining regions – face problems paying their heating bills, according to research by the Prague University of Economics and Businesses (VŠE).

The second most affected region is Moravskoslezský kraj, another Czech coal-mining region, found the study, published in May 2019.

“Energy poverty is caused mainly by ineffective buildings and appliances, low incomes of households, high costs of energy and special needs of its consumers,” said Radek Tahal from VŠE.

At European level though, the Czech Republic is considered to be among the best in class when it comes to preventing energy poverty.

Officially at least, that’s what the statistics show.

In 2018, 2.7% of the Czechs were reportedly unable to keep their home adequately warm while the European average is 7.3%, according to the EU Energy Poverty Observatory. And only 2.1% of the Czech population cannot pay their energy bills on time due to financial difficulties, while the EU average is 6.6%.

However, these numbers do not reflect regional disparities across the country, and may be underestimated, critics say.

Energy poverty affects less developed regions – especially coal mining areas – as well as the most vulnerable in Czech society: unemployed people, low-skilled workers and those aged above 60.

However, the Czech government does not acknowledge the issue, according to Climate Action Network Europe, an environmental NGO.

“In the Czech National Energy and Climate Plan, energy poverty is discussed in a rather theoretical way,” CAN Europe said in a briefing published in December. The country has currently no clear definition of energy poverty, which complicates any attempt to monitor the phenomenon.

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Subsidies for poor households

The European Commission is aware of the problems that millions of European households face. In its Renovation Wave strategy published in October 2020, the EU executive pointed out that building renovations can reduce energy bills and help low-income people.

In its National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), the Czech Republic mentions financial assistance to households and municipalities in coal mining regions among the measures to fight energy poverty.

“The programme aims to pre-finance the replacement of substandard solid fuel boilers in households in the form of a soft loan to individuals,” says the CAN Europe study, which analyses the Czech NECP.

Experts point out that energy efficiency measures, together with well-targeted support can help low-income households emerge from energy poverty.

“Difficulties connected with on-time payments of household expenses could be solved by local economy boost together with energy savings. We can decrease energy consumption with accessible subsidies for poor households and adequately managed funding programmes,” said Zuzana Vondrová, an analyst at the Centre for Transport and Energy, a Czech environmental NGO.

Meanwhile, part of the costs associated with decarbonisation efforts in coal regions should be covered by EU funding – namely the Just Transition Fund and the Modernisation fund. However, the financing aspects of the fight against energy poverty is still uncertain because there is no national strategy to date.

Visegrad countries in the spotlight

The Czech Republic is not the only central European country struggling with energy poverty reporting issues.

Although the definition of energy poverty is a legal requirement at EU level, it is not mentioned in the NECPs submitted by the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, which are part of the so-called Visegrad Four group of countries.

Things may be starting to change. Among the Visegrad countries, Czechia is the only one that has already submitted its final Long Term Renovation Strategy required under EU law. Still, the Czech strategy does not include an overview of measures to tackle energy poverty in the Ústecký and Moravskoslezský coal regions.

CAN Europe analysed the situation in six European countries – Czechia, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia.

“Every country we analysed is failing to tackle widespread energy poverty – they’re not even close to doing the bare EU minimum,” said Martha Myers-Lowe, energy poverty campaigner at Friends of the Earth Europe. The situation is compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, which affects the incomes of millions of European households, she adds, urging European governments to change their approach in tackling energy poverty properly.

According to the European Commission, energy expenditures across the EU ranged from €500 to €2,300 per household in 2015, with the poorest households spending an average €870 on electricity, gas, or heating fuel.

The poorest households in Sweden spent only 3% of total expenditure on energy, while in Slovakia this share was more than 23%.

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[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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