Europe’s ‘energy poor’ trapped by lack of viable green option

Wood burning-boilers have been pushed as a more environmentally-friendly option. But subsidy schemes either do not address the fuel poverty problem or have been mismanaged. [Shutterstock]

This article is part of our special report Heating and cooling.

Fuel poverty affects tens of millions of Europeans. Coupled with continuing subsidies for fossil fuel boilers, this means decarbonisation efforts face a real uphill struggle.

Anywhere between 50 million and 125 million Europeans struggle to heat their homes adequately, according to different sources.

The main driver of energy poverty is a combination of low income, high energy costs and poor insulation of European houses.

EU attempts to ramp up energy efficiency and renovate the building stock attack one of the root causes of high fuel prices. Improving wages, meanwhile, is a wider and far more complex problem that covers all sectors.

Renewable energies will also play a part. In order to meet EU climate and energy goals, including a fully decarbonised building stock by 2050, renewables have to be fully promoted into the heating and cooling sector.

As boilers typically have a 20-30 year lifespan that means, ideally, that no new fossil fuel-burning boilers should be installed after 2030. Otherwise, forced decommissioning could be needed in order to meet targets, which could only exacerbate the fuel poverty issue.

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Nordic countries have relegated fuel poverty to the history books by setting legal minimum standards for heating and giving house-owners a strong incentive to invest in refurbishment, says the mayor of the Swedish capital.

But given that subsidies for fossil fuel-burning boilers are still in place, the poorest consumers are currently being put in an uncomfortable position: Not only do they have to pick between heating and eating, they are also under pressure to balance their personal heating choices with global politics on climate change.

When confronted with this unfair choice, it becomes difficult to plump for a renewable-powered boiler over a cheaper, albeit less green, option.

Subsidy schemes for renewables in heating are actually in place in some member states. Unfortunately, these programmes are either not of the scale needed to make a difference to those struggling to get by, or have been mismanaged.

‘Cash for ash’ in Northern Ireland

The UK Conservative Party’s new political bedfellows, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), are still trying to escape a scandal involving boilers and subsidies.

Its 2012 Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) was set up by current party leader Arlene Foster and was intended to encourage the use of eco-friendly wood-burning boilers.

But when it emerged that it would cost the taxpayer nearly half a billion pounds over two decades, the government stopped accepting new applicants for the scheme in 2015. It will, however, have to honour commitments up to 2032 made to nearly 2,000 people that had already signed up.

The main problem of what has now been dubbed the ‘cash for ash’ offer was that it was uncapped and subsidies were too generous. In the end, the more you burned the more you earned: Under the scheme, for every pound spent by the participant, £1.60 could be paid as a subsidy.

RHI programmes are in place in other parts of the United Kingdom. A company receiving £192,000 in subsidies could, in fact, be eligible for £860,000 under the Northern Irish criteria.

The system has already been abused and hundreds of cases are under investigation. A few participants have had their subsidies cut off after being found guilty of fraudulent practices.

Air quality

There is also the small matter of deciding whether switching to wood-burning boilers is actually an eco-friendly move. Critics insist that using wood as a fuel only shifts the problem.

Wood currently makes up 85% of renewable in heating, according to environmentalists who warn more forests risk being cut down as a result of EU efforts to promote renewables in heating.

“Of all the wood used for energy roughly 40% is actually ‘residential consumption’  – mostly woody biomass for heating,” said the EU Bioenergy Policy Officer at BirdLife Europe, Sini Eräjää. In Eastern Europe in particular, people often simply heat their houses with logs from the area, due to lack alternatives or income, she says.

And all this wood burning is creating air pollution, BirdLife points out. Domestic heating was responsible for about 43% of the harmful particulate matter PM2.5 emissions in 2010, a share which is expected to remain stable over time, dropping to only 41% in 2030, according to estimates from BirdLife.

“So I’d say there’s a lot of ‘hot air’ in the renewable heating,” Eräjää told EURACTIV.com.

Others point out that the problem for air quality is not biomass but boilers without cleaning. “Air quality will suffer regardless if you burn biomass, coal, oil or natural gas in boilers without cleaning,” said Karin Wanngård, the mayor of Stockholm.

In Stockholm, the municipality ran a programme to substitute about 100,000 oil and coal chimneys without cleaning with less than 10 using state-of-the-art exhaust cleaning. As a result, “the air quality in Stockholm is 100 times better than before,”  Wanngård said.

And other incentives for renovation means fuel poverty in Nordic countries more generally is now a thing of the past, Wanngård told EURACTIV in an interview.

The fact is, more wood is being burned in the UK than at any time since the Industrial Revolution. While not releasing nearly as much CO2 as fossil fuels, it does make its own modest contribution as well.

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So in order to make RHI schemes work, a cap has to be put on the amount of subsidy that can be claimed, otherwise, the entire programme risks becoming politically toxic. They also have to be regulated better in order to make sure consumers are using it for its intended purpose.

Every system is open to exploitation but the last thing fledgeling initiatives like this need is stories of empty buildings being heated, at a profit, by people not buying into the spirit of the scheme.

Lawmakers, therefore, have to walk a fine line between offering a big enough incentive to go green, without adding to the fuel poverty problem and offering something that is economically and politically viable.

Earlier this week, EU energy ministers agreed on a general approach to the revision of two crucial energy efficiency directives, which includes a pledge to “take into account the need to alleviate energy poverty” when introducing new measures.

If the EU is to meet its climate and energy targets, as well as honouring this promise to help people that struggle to heat their homes, it will have to perform a fine balancing act.

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