Fuel poverty in Austria
In this guest post, Thomas Berger talks about the recognition of fuel poverty in Austria and his PhD research. It should be noted, the term energy poverty is used in place of fuel poverty as it is closer to the German term.
As in most European countries there is no official definition of energy poverty in Austria and the national statistic agency does not provide specific data on this issue. The subject of energy poverty is still rarely discussed and cannot be characterized as a standalone social problem in public or political discourse. But the issue of ever rising prices for energy services is of increasing importance. The German term “Energiearmut” (a direct translation of “energy poverty”) is hardly ever used in public media or in policy discourses, but the development of energy prices and rising income poverty are regular topics of news coverage. The issue of affordable warmth tends to become relevant at the start of the heating season and is brought to the public mostly by campaigning social welfare NGOs. Subsidies for heating do exist, but vary from province to province due to the federal system of Austria.
Rising fuel prices, energy inefficient housing and increasing income poverty are the main drivers of energy poverty in Austria. About one million of the 8.4 million citizens are at risk of income poverty. The annual change of the poverty rate due to OECD calculations is a plus of 2,7% (one of the highest rates in the OECD) (OECD 2011). The latest EU-SILC survey (survey on income and living conditions) showed that about 3% (237.000 citizens) of the Austrian population were not able to heat their living space to an adequate level (BMASK 2011). The latest published study on house hold consumption shows a serious negative development for low income households. From 2004 till 2005 the lowest income quartile used 5,6% of its budget for energy. In the current study focusing on the period between 2009 and 2010 the lowest income quartile already used 8,3% of its budget for the same matter. Contrary to this development the monthly expenditure of the richest house hold quartile dropped from 3,8% (2004/2005) to 3,3% (2009/2010) (AK Oberösterreich 2011; Statistik Austria 2011).
Energy poverty became a topic in the Austria research community in 2009 when the first study about energy consumption in income poor households was published. The financial inability of income poor households to increase their energy efficiency was one of the main findings of the report (Proidl 2009). Since then research mainly focused on energy consumption on the household level and a systematic analysis of energy poverty in Austria remains a topic for future research. There have been various projects (nationwide and local) to increase the energy efficiency of low income households by counseling them on their consumption behavior. Some of these projects also sponsored new household equipment or other measures to increase the energy efficiency, but there exists no study on the long-term effects of such programs.
In 2011 the Austrian funding scheme for climate and energy research recognized energy poverty for the first time. The call included a project to optimize energy counseling for low income households and the potential of Information and communication technologies (ICT) to decrease energy poverty. In the last two years a growing number of events and round tables that address energy poverty could be observed. These events are mainly organized by the scientific community to inform policymakers or for mutual exchange with researchers and practitioners.
In my PhD research I focus on the on the linkage between environmental sociology, socio-ecological inequality and energy poverty. My first step was a sociological case study in the Austrian province of Styria and its research design was explorative and qualitative. It consisted of a review of the current literature and statistical material on energy poverty and an empirical interview series. The semi-structured interviews included experts of energy suppliers, social workers, energy agencies and social welfare NGOs. In the analysis of the interviews I identified the following main aspects concerning energy poverty in Styria:
(1) The term “energy poverty” is not used in the working contexts of the interviewed experts. But rising energy bills do play an increasing role in the daily work of social workers, NGOs and energy utilities.
(2) Due to the lack of official statistics on energy consumption in connection with poverty on the Styrian level the interviewed experts were reluctant to characterize the energy poor. Their statements are therefore inconsistent, but the “classic” income poor social groups seem also to be the most vulnerable social groups in Styria concerning energy poverty.
(3) Sickness, depression, lacking social inclusion and long term unemployment are social and psychological factors that hinder efficient energy consumption in the household. Energy consulting for low income households is regarded as a potent tool to increase their energy efficiency. The long term effects of these counseling programs remains to be evaluated.
(4) Energy utilities play a key role in the energy poverty discourse and tend to be the scapegoat in local media reports when the affordability of the ever rising energy prices is discussed. Disconnections and the installation of prepayment meters are legal options for Austrian utilities. The extent of the implementation of these measures is unknown and there are no legal obligations to publish statistics on this matter.
Energy poverty is not yet in the perception of public and private institutions and organizations in Styria (as in the rest of Austria), but the consequences of it can be observed in the daily business of social workers, utilities or social welfare NGOs. The interview series showed that the problem of low income, rising energy prices and energy consumption is highly individualized. The systemic background of energy poverty still plays a minor role. To amplify the recognition of energy poverty and its consequences as a genuine social problem a national definition must be established and more comprehensive quantitative data must be gathered (Getzinger & Berger 2011).
Getzinger, Günter and Berger, Thomas (2011), ‘Energiearmut: Ursachen, Folgen und Wege zu ihrer Bekämpfung’, in: Landesenergieverein Steiermark (Ed.), Heading towards a sustainable energy future. A summary of scientific papers in memoriam Manfred Heindler. Graz.
OECD (2011), ‘Income Distribution and Poverty’ (11.04.2011).