Written by Slavica Robic, Program Director at DOOR, Member of the Advisory Board for the European Energy Poverty Observatory
Energy Poverty poses one of key problems of modern society. While there is an ongoing debate on how to precisely define energy poverty and who exactly are the most vulnerable groups, there is a common agreement that it is a problem which urgently needs to be addressed.
With continuous increase in energy prices more households face problems with covering their basic energy needs. Because of either complete lack of access to certain energy services (i.e. as result of no connection to the electricity grid) or because of the inability to afford certain energy services, people are forced to live in inadequate living conditions posing a serious threat to their health and wellbeing. Society for Sustainable Development Design (DOOR) from Zagreb Croatia, together with many partners, continuously works on increasing awareness on energy poverty through wide range of fact-based advocacy actions. Our particular focus is on South East Europe (SEE) as this region is the most vulnerable. Energy poverty in SEE is arguably more wide-spread and deeper enrooted in the society compared to Western Europe.
Through the implementation of three EU funded projects, REACH, With knowledge to warm home, and SEE SEP, a series of field visits to energy poor homes have been undertaken in the SEE countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia). During the field visits simple energy audits were done together with a survey on living and health conditions. The data collected clearly indicates the severity of energy poverty in the region and calls for urgent action. People are faced with poor physical and mental health, being exposed to permanent draught through uninsulated and old windows and doors with high levels of damp and visible mould. They report difficulties with paying for utility bills and their dwellings are typically without any insulation. There is also a high prevalence of single furnace fuelwood stove heating, which for areas with cold winters, as many SEE countries have, results in cold homes. Many households reduce their living space in winter and even if they leave heating on in other rooms, it is done by inefficient and old electrical heaters.
Inadequate cooking, heating, lighting, washing, and, commonly forgotten but very important for Mediterranean countries, cooling, is the reality of energy poor in SEE.
Policy dialogue related to energy poverty is often done through the “Western European” context and measures such as “provision of efficiency dryers” are considered. Such approach is of little relevance to the SEE context where many households still do not even have access to electricity or their own washing machine, and their refrigerators are more than 30 years old. Another issue in the policy dialogue is that most focus is given to the financial measures, i.e. support in paying the bills. While to some people such support is necessary, in many cases the need for direct financial support can be eliminated through energy efficiency measures. Energy efficiency is the only mechanism which is at the same time improving the living conditions, while reducing the energy needed for achieving the same level of comfort or even for improved level of comfort. Energy efficiency should be at the heart of every energy poverty policy, as it has proven positive impact on health (through the reduction of draught, cold, damp and mould) and it is an investment rather than merely a continuous cost such as the direct financial support mechanisms are.