Energy stewards to reduce energy poverty
In the following guest article, Sam Nierop argues that the concept of energy stewards could facilitate a comprehensive approach to reduce energy poverty. Energy stewards would be trained to provide vulnerable households and communities with financial, social and informational resources in order to address the drivers behind energy poverty.
1. Drivers behind energy poverty
Energy poverty can be determined by assessing the four variables income, energy prices, energy efficiency and energy needs. Groups vulnerable to energy poverty are associated with substandard outcomes on these variables (Table 1). Energy poverty occurs especially when multiple factors combine, for example when households with a low income live in poorly insulated housing. However, as the drivers behind energy poverty belong to different policy areas (energy policy, social policy and housing policy), programs often fall back on resolutions that address these drivers separately.
A more comprehensive approach derives from the observation that energy poverty is produced and aggravated by a lack of financial, social and informational resources. First, vulnerable households and communities might not have sufficient access to financial resources in order to invest in energy efficiency renovations or local renewable energy. In particular, households that rent their dwelling cannot obtain mortgage loans, while they generally do not reap the financial benefits of improvements. Furthermore, being unable to afford adequate energy can lead to social exclusion and stigmatization, making it more likely that households lack the social resources to seek assistance. Finally, vulnerable households might not have the informational resources on how to improve their situation. This includes information on how to switch energy suppliers, how to obtain subsidies and how to save energy.
The employment of what I call ‘energy stewards’ aims to address all the drivers behind energy poverty by providing households (section 2) and communities (section 3) with financial, social and informational resources(see Table 2). The absence of a specific focus on one dimension of energy poverty gives more flexibility to tailor the assistance to the circumstances and capabilities of the beneficiaries. Energy stewards could be recruited among unemployed vulnerable households in order to provide them with employment. They should receive professional training that not only informs them about the legal, economical and technical practicalities involved, but also sensitizes them to the social complexities and multidimensionality of energy poverty. Alternatively, the role of energy stewards could be assigned to other professionals, such as social workers.
2. Energy stewards on a household level
The initial focus of energy stewards will likely be on providing households with informational resources. This could include assistance with the enhanced uptake of entitlement benefits, the choice of energy supplier (Lorenc et al. 2013) and with the functioning of equipment (Owen, Mitchell, and Unsworth 2013). In addition, the energy steward could educate households on potential behavioral changes improving energy consumption and health. This information should be sensitive to social practices and perceptions (Day and Hitchings 2011). Furthermore, energy stewards could provide financial support by negotiating payment plans for arrears (Hamilton et al. 1998). They could also help to access funding to improve the energy efficiency of housing and household applications. Importantly, the energy steward aims to establish a relationship of trust with the household, as this might increase the chances that households accept and utilize the resources provided. Moreover, the energy steward itself could be an additional social resource that can be relied upon when there are energy-related issues.
3. Energy stewards on a community level
Energy steward programs might be particularly effective when they are geographically focused on local communities. Energy stewards that are recruited from the communities themselves are likely to have better access to the households inside the area, facilitating the creation of a trust relationship and utilizing and expanding the existing social resources (De Haro and Koslowski 2013; McMichael and Shipworth 2013). Energy stewards could provide communities with informational resources on obtaining funding for energy efficiency and local energy production. Practical issues, such as complex application forms, are often a major obstacle to access financing (Park 2012). These activities might be carried out within community-owned local energy organizations that energy stewards help to establish (Saunders, Gross, and Wade 2012). The resulting economies of scale could help to provide energy efficiency measures at a lower price and allow investment in communal renewable energy. Furthermore, these energy investments might spur the regional economy by creating green jobs (Boardman 2010). The message of these programs and organizations should be one of empowerment, focusing on invigorating the appearance and the environmental sustainability of the whole community (Scott, Jones, and Webb 2014).
I have argued that the concept of energy stewards could facilitate a comprehensive approach to reduce energy poverty by providing vulnerable households and communities with financial, social and informational resources. To be sure, many existing programs to reduce energy poverty already incorporate one or more of the elements outlined above. Good examples are the European ACHIEVE and EC-LINC projects. The presented framework hopefully allows these kinds of programs to better conceptualize their efforts and to expand their scope to address multiple drivers behind energy poverty.
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