Event Report – Energy Poverty and Social Isolation
Energy poverty is an urgent issue which many would like to see being given increased priority in the EU policy arena. The White Rose Universities of Sheffield, Leeds and York have collaborated on a research project which explored the relationship between energy poverty and social relations. Our academics presented these findings at this event, followed by insights from those directly involved in energy policy, and an engaging group discussion.
Theresa Griffin, MEP for the North West of England, hosted the event. In her introduction, she argued that the loneliness and isolation caused by energy poverty shows that energy is a basic social right and not a commodity. No one should ever be disconnected from energy services because they cannot afford to pay their bill, she said.
As the lead academic of the White Rose Collaboration Fund project on Energy Poverty, Dr Lucie Middlemiss from the University of Leeds presented their research which found that energy poverty shapes and is shaped by social relations. Qualitative data showed that if you have access to energy, you are in a better position to maintain healthy social relations. Those who have warm homes are more likely to invite guests over, for instance. Social relations may also grant access to energy services: if family or friends have experience in this area, they can act as powerful intermediaries. In this sense, resources can be social as well as financial. Isolated, energy-poor individuals are therefore in a particularly vulnerable situation, because they lack both.
Dr Tom Hargreaves’ presentation on ‘Emotional Engagements with Energy Poverty’ delved further into the lived experience of the fuel poor. Energy poverty causes fear, worry and a need for control: often leading individuals to engage in constant vigilance of their energy consumption.
He described the irony of pre-payment meters that allow individuals to ‘pay as you go’ for energy services: often used by the poorest households, because it avoids the worry of an unpredictable bill every month, they actually have among the highest tariff rates. Pre-payment meters can therefore further perpetuate the anxiety they were adopted to alleviate. Energy policy must take into account the multifaceted nature of energy poverty, Tom argued, because ‘lives aren’t siloed’.
Johannes Thema of the Wuppertal Institute took the discussion in the direction of policy, as he talked the audience through a newly launched EU initiative, the Energy Poverty Observatory. A central goal is to establish a common definition of energy poverty, something not yet achieved at the European level, but this necessitates making generalisations which may not capture all aspects of lived experience. To remain engaged with individuals, the Observatory is intended to be a ‘living platform’, where stakeholders can interact both online and offline. One key obstacle faced in understanding and combatting energy poverty is that there is very limited comparable data available which makes it difficult to determine indicators. Progress is being made, however, and thereare 4 primary indicators of energy poverty proposed on the website (see presentation).
Finally, Ms Paula Pinho, Head of Unit at DG Energy, gave the crucial insight that ‘energy poverty does not exist’ as a mandate in Parliament or the Council. She lamented that a definition of something as tangible as energy poverty could not be agreed, making the important point that it is politically taboo for countries with a large GDP to admit that energy poverty does exist. Denial of the issue is a way to avoid addressing it. Therefore, the first step should be to agree upon a definition and indicators so clear objectives to reduce energy poverty can be made.
In the ensuing discussion, the Panel were asked why energy efficiency was not put at the forefront of such discussions, because heating leaky homes (for example) is wasteful. It was argued that increased efficiency can address poverty, so should be prioritised. The response was that in an ideal world, energy efficiency would receive substantial investment – but in a time of austerity, we cannot ignore the pressing issue of the energy poor suffering in the short term. Further points raised included the absence of discussion around transport: how does the inability to afford transport services interact with energy poverty? Lucie pointed out that they are often difficult to separate; often individuals must choose to pay for transport and forgo heating at home, for example.
This was evidence for the need to start from lived experience, beause ‘splintering problems’ and dealing with them individually is a barrier to solving them. The need to consider how health is impacted by energy policy provided further support for this people-centric approach. Such an approach requires case-work, which involves keeping in touch with people over time. Stefan Goemaere, a Belgian social worker who has been working with the energy poor for several years, offered to collaborate with researchers and provide the data he had been collecting over these years. It was generally agreed that an increased emphasis on lived experience in policy is the way forward which, as Theresa Griffin finished by pointing out, requires giving those afflicted a chance to express themselves and discuss their experiences.