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15 Oct 2014

A brief overview of the EU discourse on fuel poverty & energy poverty

A brief overview of the EU discourse on fuel poverty & energy poverty

The following blog article by Harriet Thomson aims to provide a very brief overview of the discourse on fuel poverty and energy poverty at the European scale, based on the frequency of key terms appearing in official policy documents from 2001 through to the present day.

A core part of my PhD research on EU fuel poverty is a content analysis of EU policy documents. The first stage of this particular aspect of my research seeks to summarise the fragmented European fuel poverty policy framework that Member States are obliged to operate within, followed by an analysis of the European discourse concerning fuel poverty and energy poverty. Ultimately, the research seeks to understand if all the main EU institutions acknowledge fuel/energy poverty, and whether there are any differences or overlaps between the discourses of each institution.  For an introduction to the main EU Directives relating to fuel poverty, see my earlier blog post from 2012: Is the EU doing enough?

After defining research questions, the first step taken was to conduct two searches of all official policy documents ever produced by legislative and consultative institutions and bodies of the European Union. The first search used the term “energy poverty”, and the second search used “fuel poverty”. The combined number of documents found was 187. The second phase of the research has involved analysing a selection of these 187 documents, with a total of 46 documents shortlisted then coded and analysed using NVivo 10, which is a Computer Assisted Qualitative Data Analysis Software package. The expanded results from this analysis will hopefully become available in forthcoming months.

As can be seen in Figure 1 below, this first step revealed that fuel poverty was first mentioned in a policy document back in 2001, followed closely by energy poverty in 2002, meaning that the terminology has been in use for at least 13 years at the EU level. The first use of the term fuel poverty in 2001 was by the European Coal and Steel Community Consultative Committee, who in an Opinion document noted:

“In adopting appropriate measures to encourage improved energy efficiency by the domestic sector, the EU and its Member States should avoid any measures that risk exacerbating fuel poverty” (European Coal and Steel Community Consultative Committee, 2001: 2).

By comparison, the phrase energy poverty was first used by the European Commission in a 2002 Communication concerning energy cooperation with developing countries, which noted:

“Apart from the absolute priority of guaranteeing access to adequate energy services for the “energy poor”, demand-side cooperation is undoubtedly the most promising avenue of approach, since improving energy efficiency is a crucial area that has to a large extent not been exploited so far in the developing countries” (European Commission, 2002)

However, this was in relation to a lack of access to modern energy services in developing countries, rather than energy affordability issues in developed European countries. It was not until 2007 and 2008 that energy poverty was discussed in reference to energy affordability in developed countries, during the preparatory stages of Directives 2009/72/EC and 2009/73/EC.

Figure 1. Number of EU policy documents using the terms energy poverty and fuel poverty from 2001 – 2014.
Figure 1. Number of EU policy documents using the terms energy poverty and fuel poverty from 2001 – 2014.

Another interesting characteristic revealed by the initial searches is that the use of terminology to describe an inability to attain an adequate energy supply has been inconsistent and often interchangeable, as demonstrated by the green sections of the bars in Figure 1. It is clear that energy poverty has been used far more frequently than fuel poverty in policy documents, with 132 out of 187 documents (70.59%) exclusively using the term energy poverty. Nevertheless, the proportion of documents that only use the term fuel poverty is significant (12.30%), as is the percentage of documents that use both terms interchangeably (17.11%), and indicates a level of uncertainty among policy stakeholders.

Examining the distribution of policy documents that mention fuel poverty and/or energy poverty by institution helps to show who the main actors are, and where the inconsistencies are mainly originating from. Table 1 explains the abbreviations subsequently used in Figure 2.

Table 1. Abbreviations of EU institutions.
Table 1. Abbreviations of EU institutions.
Figure 2. Distribution of terminology across EU institutions from 2001 – 2014.
Figure 2. Distribution of terminology across EU institutions from 2001 – 2014.

Figure 2 shows that most EU institutions have exclusively used the term fuel poverty at least once across the 2001 to 2014 time frame. The Committee of the Regions and the European Commission have employed the term most frequently, followed by the Economic and Social Committee. By comparison, the term energy poverty has been used most frequently by the European Commission and the European Parliament.

Overall, the key contributors to policy in terms of the volume of documents that mention the two terms, are the European Commission (54 documents) and the European Parliament (42 documents), however, considering they are both legislative bodies this is probably not surprising. Of greater interest is the contribution made by consultative institutions and by elected Members of Parliament. For instance, the European Economic and Social Committee have produced 37 documents since 2001 that mention fuel poverty and/or energy poverty. Of particular note are their 2011 Opinion document on ‘Energy poverty in the context of liberalisation and the economic crisis’, and their 2013 Opinion document on ‘For coordinated European measures to prevent and combat energy poverty’. MEPs have also been active during this period, with 27 written questions sent to the European Commission. Interestingly many of these questions have been from Greek MEPs, in addition to questions from Irish, British, Portuguese, Spanish, French and Maltese MEPs.

Whilst this article has zoomed through 13 years of policy documents in only a few hundred words, hopefully it has demonstrated that the European policy context for fuel and energy poverty is fragmented and messy, which is likely to be hindering efforts to formulate policy responses. Indeed, the current policy framework that Member States have to operate within, based on the 2009 internal market Directives, is vague and enables Member States to largely ignore the problem of fuel poverty. Whilst the two 2009 Directives recognise that energy poverty is a growing problem and require affected Member States to develop national action plans or frameworks, no definition of energy poverty is provided, and likewise, no criteria for an ‘affected Member State’ is given. Similarly, in these directives Member States are required to define a vulnerable customer possibly in relation to energy poverty, but no guidance is provided on who is likely to be a vulnerable customer. It many respects it is disappointing that after 13 years of discussing fuel poverty and energy poverty, European policy is still not fit for purpose in terms of addressing the prevalence of fuel poverty issues across Europe, with no formal understanding or definition of fuel poverty or energy poverty, and an absence of adequate measurement tools.

References

Council Directive 2009/72/EC of 13 July 2009 concerning common rules for the internal market in electricity and repealing Directive 2003/54/EC.

Council Directive 2009/73/EC of 13 July 2009 concerning common rules for the internal market in natural gas and repealing Directive 2003/55/EC.

European Commission (2002) Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament: Energy cooperation with the developing countries. COM(2002) 408 final, Brussels.

European Coal and Steel Community Consultative Committee (2001)Opinion of the ECSC consultative Committee on the European climate change programme and emissions trading. Official Journal of the European Communities, C 170/8

European Economic and Social Committee (2013) Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘For coordinated European measures to prevent and combat energy poverty’ (own-initiative opinion). Official Journal of the European Communities, C 341/21

European Economic and Social Committee (2011) Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘Energy poverty in the context of liberalisation and the economic crisis’ (exploratory opinion). Official Journal of the European Union, C44/53