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The energy poor need to be included in energy transition planning: here’s how

Lucie Middlemiss, Associate Professor in Sustainability at the Sustainability Research Institute, draws on insights from across Europe on how to ensure that those without access to enough energy are not left behind in the rush towards a low-carbon energy future.

Photo by Alex on Unsplash

A white paper on ‘Energy poverty and the energy transition’ was published in the Netherlands in early November, co-authored by myself and an international group of experts. In it we draw on insights from around Europe, to advise the Netherlands on how best to integrate the energy poor into their low-carbon energy transition planning. Other countries, including the UK, could learn from these insights.

Energy poverty, when people cannot access adequate energy services, is a problem which takes different forms in different European nations, according to the climate, and to the support available for households through energy and social policy. Given that people can become energy poor due to poor housing conditions, low incomes, or constraints in accessing the energy market, a range of policy measures can have unforeseen consequences on the energy poor.

While energy transition planning is well underway in the Netherlands, there is no Dutch policy on energy poverty, despite new EU regulation on energy and climate that requires member nations to report on energy poverty. Action on energy poverty in the Netherlands has so far been led by municipalities and regions to meet a diverse range of local targets on health, wellbeing, social relations, household budgeting and climate change. However, the Netherlands is currently lacking a national response to the issue: our white paper sets out to change that, offering three clear recommendations as to how national policy-makers should proceed.

A multi-indicator framework is needed to measure energy poverty

The first recommendation is to measure energy poverty in the Netherlands, but specifically, to take heed of the multi-faceted nature of the problem and develop a multi-indicator framework to measure energy poverty. This is needed to capture both the dynamic nature of the problem, as we transition towards a low carbon future, and the fact that people respond to, and experience, energy poverty very differently. Some people do not see themselves as having a problem, despite living in temperatures (hot or cold) that are known to have detrimental health effects. Others will never go without heat, compromising on other critical items (food, travel). A multi-indicator framework has the advantage of capturing this diversity of responses and tracking it over time. Such an approach has been used to positive effect in France: their ‘basket of indicators’ capturing different types of energy poverty in this way.

Plan the energy transition with the energy poor in mind

The second recommendation is to develop specific energy poverty policies which complement and intersect with existing measures to promote the energy transition. These two policy areas must be considered side by side: as an energy transition that has only negative consequences for the energy poor is likely to be ineffective and unpopular. There is currently limited attention on how the energy poor will be affected by the energy transition in the Netherlands, and it is essential that the planned costs of this transition do not fall too heavily on the poorest.

But what does this mean in practical terms: what specific measures are needed? The two most commonly used policy measures for energy poverty focus on affordability and energy efficiency: lowering energy prices, and helping people to access more energy efficient appliances and buildings. This sounds simple, but when people have different forms of tenure (owning, renting privately or social housing), different levels of eligibility for help, and differing needs, it can be difficult to target policy measures. Further, linking attempts to increase people’s access to energy through increased affordability is potentially problematic for meeting carbon targets. It may be that some households will need to consume more energy to avoid energy poverty: finding ways of accommodating this within a national carbon budget is important. There are measures that address both carbon reduction and energy poverty reduction, principally efficiency measures, but these need careful planning and monitoring to ensure that both targets are reached.

Social, energy and built-environment policies all impact the energy poor

The third recommendation is to take into account energy poverty when planning social, energy and built environment policies. The multi-faceted nature of energy poverty means that all of these policy areas are closely linked. A change in the benefits system, for instance, can result in many more people suffering from a lack of access to energy services (in the UK and the Netherlands this will mean suffering from the cold, for instance). Built environment policy has a longer term impact on energy poverty: if energy efficiency standards are raised, for instance, it can take decades for this to trickle through to an overall increase in thermal comfort.

Such coordination requires close cooperation between the various ministries involved, something that can be challenging in any nation. It is possible to monitor and track the effects of energy transition policy on the energy poor through qualitative research (or ‘the lived experience’) which allows us to see the ways in which diverse policies impact on people experiencing this problem. The Scottish government has used lived experience data to road test new policy ideas, and there is also scope to monitor the ways in which households are affected by policy using such data.

The UK and others can learn from European experiences in this area

As more nations begin to integrate energy poverty concerns into energy transition policy, in response to both EU regulation and concerns about ‘just’ transitions, there are important learning opportunities between nations, including for us in the UK. We were the first country to define, measure and actively address ‘fuel poverty’ (the UK term), but the problem remains stubbornly persistent here. The Netherlands, and other nations, have the advantage of being able to learn from our mistakes, and to produce innovative policy which addresses some of the challenges that we have come across. Given the growth in interest in this area internationally, and the policy innovation occurring in association with new EU energy transition goals, we must keep an eye on progress in the Netherlands and elsewhere. In particular, bringing together energy poverty and energy transition will be critical to ensure that low carbon futures are inclusive, and that the problems of energy poverty are more effectively addressed.

Read the white paper: Energy poverty and the energy transition: Towards improved energy poverty monitoring, measuring and policy action. 18 November 2020

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Policy Leeds works to connect policy professionals with researchers, nurturing long term and productive collaborations and engagements. Our blog series offers insights on the latest policy-relevant evidence and ideas drawn from our wide-ranging research.

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