Battling energy poverty

Over the past 15 years energy prices have been continuously increasing. Families living in old buildings spend extensive amounts of money on heating - as much as 30-40% during winter. However a refurbished building saves on the tenant energy bill every month.

Increase in energy efficiency is the first priority of national energy strategies and policies. The strategic goal is to produce, distribute and consume less energy with the same quality of service.

The focus on energy-efficient retrofits has reasonable economic justifications considering the previous escalations of energy prices and its devastating effect on the most vulnerable groups, such as no and low-income families, the elderly or disabled citizens.

The price of energy in the western world has always had a real economic value, which was not the case in the countries of the former eastern bloc. As a result, in the past fifteen years, the prices in this region have been gradually reaching a realistic market level resulting in too many homes trapped in poverty. Due to the previously low energy prices, the former construction and heating methods did not focus on saving energy. Families living in the old buildings spend extensive amounts of money on heating – as much as 30-40% during winter. The highly inefficient energy use puts a heavy burden on low-income households. As most of the economically vulnerable families already struggle to pay the bills, they are left facing the impossible choice between “eating or heating.”

Low thermal efficiency in housing, especially if combined with deficient social welfare, has detrimental effects on health and quality of living. The households that cannot afford adequate levels of energy consumption (usually for heat and hot water) either go into energy indebtedness and face the threat of being disconnected by the utility provider or reduce significantly their consumption. Either choice entails hardship, exposure to health risks and feelings of social alienation – which only deepen the vicious circle of social exclusion.

If the residents are forced to sacrifice their energy consumption to a level that threatens their health and welfare, the situation is unsustainable.

Yet some of these countries are among the coldest in the region, with the heating season lasting for up to seven months. The scale of the fuel poverty is further aggravated, as many residents have resorted to the use of “dirty” fuels and cheap stoves, which are polluting and negatively affecting the indoor air quality and health. Cold and damp houses also make the occupants prone to respiratory, cardiovascular, allergy-related and infectious diseases, psychological stress, and even cold-related death.

The largest source of energy savings, which greatly benefit the struggling households, comes from renovations that improve their heating systems and insulation. By improving the thermo-insulating properties of a building it is possible to achieve reduction of the total heat and energy loss by 50-80%.

Aided appropriately both in financing (with a good subsidy system), technical and in organisational matters, the rate of return can be reduced to a relatively short time span, foreseeable even for low-income households.

The chart below demonstrates a possible decrease in energy consumption resulting from energy-efficient construction or thermal insulation of buildings.

 Annual energy consumption per m2 of living space

  • Average old buildings consume each year 250 – 350 kWh/m2 for heating (varies from country and building technology)
  • Standard insulated buildings consume less than 100 kWh/m2
  • Contemporary low-energy houses about 40 kWh/m(depends however on national regulations)
  • Passive houses 15 kWh/m2 and less

The differences in energy requirements indicate the significant possibility of savings due to efficient energy use in buildings. By implementing energy-efficiency measures the energy performance of a building can be substantially improved. Decreased energy consumption also means lower utility bills providing a safety net for low-income groups.

Moreover, investing in energy efficiency renovations increases the overall thermal comfort of the buildings. The indoor climate is improved by reducing energy leakage through windows and the household temperatures become more consistent.

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