by Harriet Thomson
Fuel poverty, which is more commonly referred to as energy poverty outside the UK, occurs when a household experiences inadequate levels of essential energy services (such as heating, cooling, and lighting). Fuel poverty is a distinct form of poverty associated with a range of adverse consequences for people’s health and wellbeing – with respiratory and cardiac illnesses, and mental health, exacerbated due to low temperatures and stress associated with unaffordable energy bills. It is estimated that almost 60 million households in the EU are experiencing fuel poverty.
Whilst fuel poverty is gaining increasing recognition across Europe, and has been identified as a policy priority by several key institutions – including the European Commission and European Parliament – just a few years ago there were substantial gaps in knowledge about the issue.
Plugging the knowledge gap
My ESRC-funded PhD aimed to address the analytical gaps in policy and statistical understandings of fuel poverty, and provide policymakers with new measures of the extent of fuel poverty, and new information on its drivers in different countries.
During the first phase I analysed EU policy documents spanning 2003 to 2014 which established the role of EU institutions in shaping fuel poverty policy over time, and revealed the power dynamics that contributed to its relative marginalisation as a policy issue, despite significant support from many EU institutions for greater action to address the issue.
This was later coupled with a statistical analysis of a household-level pan-EU index, based principally on EU statistics on income and living conditions from 2007 to 2011 which demonstrated the pervasive and enduring nature of fuel poverty across Europe.
By making evidence-based insights more accessible to policymakers, and highlighting the inadequacies of the status quo, my work has influenced the development and framing of new EU policy approaches for addressing fuel poverty. I was delighted that my work was recognised last year when I won the 2017 ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding Early Career Impact.
The work of EPOV
Previously opposed to tackling the issue, since 2014 the European Commission has made significant investments in defining and measuring the problem, most notably through funding the EU Energy Poverty Observatory (EPOV). Launched in January 2018, EPOV is an exciting new initiative to help member states in their efforts to combat energy poverty, as part of expected forthcoming requirements stemming from the Clean Energy for All Europeans package of measures that are currently in negotiations between the European Commission, European Council and European Parliament.
As project manager of the Energy Poverty Observatory (EPOV) I jointly lead the project with Professor Stefan Bouzarovski (University of Manchester), with the support of a broader pan-European consortium. EPOV exists to improve the measuring, monitoring and sharing of knowledge and best practice on energy poverty, with a comprehensive web portal forming the main focal point for EPOV.
This initiative represents a significant step forward in legitimising the issue, and engendering transformational change in knowledge about the extent of energy poverty in Europe, and innovative policies and practices to combat it. Indeed, the first Horizon 2020 funding call to focus explicitly on energy poverty was launched recently, which will lead to new practical projects to mitigate the problem.
Impact on a global scale
Given the rapid expansion of funding and activities taking place in Europe, I was keen to use my Impact Prize winnings to open up new dialogues further afield, and to explore the potential to transfer elements of the EPOV model to other geographical contexts.
The first activity took place in January 2018, the day after EPOV’s high profile public launch in Brussels, and was a jointly hosted multi-stakeholder workshop with Dr Karla Cedano Villavicencio from the Institute of Renewable Energies at Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México entitled ‘Setting new agendas for Mexican-European collaborations to tackle energy poverty’. This workshop featured presentations from a range of stakeholders on active and completed projects in Europe and Mexico, in terms of both research and practical action.
In April 2018, I had the opportunity to attend the conference ‘Energy poverty and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ hosted in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico where I presented on EPOV and energy poverty in Europe, and exchanged ideas with researchers and policymakers from Chile, Mexico, and the USA.
The outcomes of these two events have been knowledge exchange on energy poverty in different contexts, networking building, and collaboration on international funding bids focusing on replicating and adapting the EPOV model, and integrating the alleviation of energy poverty within smart city developments. I am planning to use the remaining funds for additional international stakeholder events this summer.
Dr Harriet Thomson is a Lecturer in Global Social Policy and Sociology at the University of Birmingham.
In 2017 Harriet won the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize for Outstanding Early Career Impact for her research on fuel poverty in the EU.