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05 Oct 2015

Growing interest in energy poverty within the European Parliament

Growing interest in energy poverty within the European Parliament

In this article Dr Harriet Thomson reports back on a recent energy poverty workshop that was hosted in Brussels by the Socialists and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, and comments on the growing awareness of energy poverty shown by Parliament members. Article reposted and adapted with permission from Energy Vulnerability and Urban Transitions.

Policymakers have been discussing ‘fuel poverty’ and ‘energy poverty’ at the EU-scale since at least 2001, as outlined in an earlier blog post. Yet despite widespread acknowledgement of the issue by EU decision makers, policy responses have remained fragmented and messy, and lack both a definition of fuel or energy poverty, and criteria for an ‘affected Member State’. However, this may soon change now that European Parliament groups are showing a renewed interest in addressing fuel poverty.

S&D working group

The Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) is the second largest political group within the European Parliament, comprised of politicians from all 28 Member States. Over the last year the S&D group has been managing a working group on energy poverty in Europe, which comes at a strategically important time as several new entry points into policy are offered by the newly launched Energy Union strategy. The entry points include full implementation of the third Internal Energy Market Package at the Member State level, and reviews of the Energy Efficiency and the Energy Performance of Buildings Directives.

As part of the S&D working group activities, a workshop was held in Brussels on 16th September 2015 which focussed on the consumer and Internal Energy Market aspects of energy poverty in Europe. The workshop was formally opened by Theresa Griffin, MEP for the North West of England, who is actively involved with energy policy decision-making as Chair of the S&D working group on energy poverty, and Vice-President of the European Forum for Renewable Energy Sources (EUFORES). In her speech Theresa highlighted the importance of closely co-operating with other EU institutions, as well as with NGOs, industry and academia, and outlined the aim of producing a manifesto on energy poverty later this year.

Following on from this Francesc Vendrell, Director of Institutional Relations in the Catalan Ombudsman’s Office, discussed the right to basic utilities in Catalonia, the nature of energy poverty in the region, and the difficulties associated with creating progressive energy tariffs. Among the key challenges noted by Francesc were defining what is a reasonable ‘basic provision’ of energy, and how to manage households with unpaid energy bills.

The subsequent speaker was Carina Tornblom, Head of Unit for Consumer Strategy at the Consumers Directorate within DG Justice and Consumers. Carina provided an overview of the outcomes from stakeholder engagement on the topics of vulnerable consumers and energy poverty, including via the Vulnerable Consumer Working Group. Carina also outlined the legal frameworks supporting action on energy poverty, and some of the key drivers associated with energy vulnerability.

Harriet Thomson then provided the research context for ameliorating energy poverty in Europe, highlighting issues of poor data availability and limited understandings of the nature of energy poverty in many countries. Harriet also presented some initial findings from the EVALUATE project, and concluded with a number of recommendations for future policy frameworks, including the adoption of a general pan-EU definition of energy poverty, and the importance of delivering energy efficiency schemes at the neighbourhood scale.

The penultimate talk by Heidi Ranscombe, Senior Public Affairs Advocate at Citizens Advice, comprehensively outlined opportunities for providing a ‘new deal’ for EU retail energy markets via the Energy Union strategy. Heidi detailed a number of ways in which to ensure energy markets and services are inclusive for all consumers, how to address energy affordability and fuel poverty, and empowering consumers through information and choice.

Soledad Cabezόn Ruiz, MEP for Andalucía in Spain, provided the closing remarks for the workshop, noting the importance of greater consumer engagement in the energy markets, and the need for improved transparency across the sector. Soledad stated that key stakeholders are aware of the fact that low income households are paying proportionately more for their energy than higher income groups, but the challenge is how to develop progressive billing mechanisms and cost sharing. Soledad also highlighted the importance of improved energy efficiency, which was a key theme across many of the presentations.

Events hosted by other political groups

The S&D workshop is mirrored by efforts from The Greens–European Free Alliance (The Greens-EFA) group in the European Parliament, who commissioned a report by National Energy Action on Europe’s ‘Energy Divide’, and subsequently hosted a roundtable discussion in London on 24th October 2014, which the author was involved with. The Greens-EFA are shortly hosting a follow up event in Brussels on the social and energy related aspects of energy poverty.

However, activity by the remaining political groups in the European Parliament has been minimal or none existent, particularly from centre-right and right-wing affiliated groups such as the European People’s Party (EPP), who are the largest group in the European Parliament, and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). This suggests that affecting policy change is still a significant challenge, and is one that requires the input from academics, government representatives and campaigners in order to successfully communicate why fuel poverty is an urgent societal challenge that requires a comprehensive multi-actor alleviation strategy.