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02 Aug 2017

Reframing fuel poverty through transforming definition: the case of fuel poverty in Spain

Reframing fuel poverty through transforming definition: the case of fuel poverty in Spain

In our latest guest post Victoria Pellicer-Sifres explores fuel poverty in Spain through the lens of energy vulnerability, revealing a range of interrelated factors that are exacerbating the issue. 

In Spain, fuel poverty is now becoming recognised. Thanks to the claims of activists and social organisations, and embedded in a context of economic crisis, the concept has now captured media and some regional governments’ attention. But we are only looking upon a limited part of a bigger problem. We thus need, as a first step, to change current definition towards a more critical and politicised one. That would open us the option to advance towards a more transformative conceptualisation.

I remember those first times when I had to explain what I was researching about. That was just three years ago. And it was not an easy task, because before 2014, in Spain, almost no one had ever heard about the term of “fuel poverty”.

On those moments, mostly everyone was using Brenda Boardman’s (1999) 10% definition[1]. The conversation evolved similar to this:

And the debate stopped at that point, and didn’t go further…

We, as researchers and activists, went on exploring it, and starting to use Boardman’s 2010 broader definition [2], which has evolved from a focus on energy costs to focus on energy services. Thanks to the committed and activist work of some social organisations (i.e: Plattform for a New Energy Model, Asociación de Ciencias Ambientales, Ecoserveis), and embedded in a context of economic crisis and austerity, on winter of 2014 fuel poverty captured media attention.

Since then, little by little, it became a more popular concept among Spaniards. But the label arrived before the meaning… And it means that the conversation has now evolved towards this…:

And, even having evolved on the definition, the debate usually stops at this point, and neither goes much further…

Definition is important since it draws on different understandings of its causes and consequences, and thereby can point to different sites of intervention. Our three years of research in Spain shows us that we need to reframe how we understand fuel poverty. We need to evolve towards a more critiqued and politicised conceptualisation. And the first step can consist in advancing towards a more transformative definition.

Through a qualitative work based on semi-structured interviews (to fuel poor, to policy makers and to social workers); on 600 street questionnaires, on 3 years of participatory information and on an extensive revision of secondary information, we firstly explored how people in fuel poverty react to the term “poverty”. Our findings show that there exist a part of the population who, even being suffering fuel poverty, don’t recognise it because they don’t feel (or don’t want to feel) themselves identified with the “poverty” label. They represent that medium social class who has not had before economic problems, but who, due to economic crisis, has recently been involved on a precariousness situation. Talking about “vulnerability” instead “poverty”, then, is more suitable: it reduces its stigma meaning, and at the same time it allows to show the dynamism of the concept (the likelihood of getting in and out of fuel poverty).

Secondly, we’ve explored the causes as drivers of fuel poverty. Main literature (and therefore Spanish discourses) talks about three interconnected causes: high prices, low income and low energy efficiency. We consider they are limited. If we adopt this narrow vision of causes, we are avoiding to make visible others more related with structural constraints. To explore them from a wider vision, we’ve been inspired on the six factors proposed by Bouzarovski and Petrova (2015) -access; affordability; flexibility; energy efficiency; needs and practices- and we’ve understood their meaning and application in the case of Spain.

Here below we show our findings related to the case of Spain:

These findings evidences that fuel poverty causes are considerable much further than those just related with inner household factors. They are, to a large extent, due to external, structural, systemic, complex and interconnected causes, such as:

  • Structural constraints: unemployment; crisis; austerity policies; other basic services privatization (water, gas, housing); aged housing stock.
  • Spanish energy regime : oligopoly power; revolving doors between politicians and main energy companies; high energy prices; complex regulations; no promotion of alternative, cheap and renewable sources of energy.
  • Insufficient or inadequate policies, which allow practices such as: cut of supply in vulnerable houses; the second highest electricity prices in Europe; procedures’ high fees; lack of legal protection for tenant against landlords/ladies; inexistence of energy efficiency measures (subsidies, public programs, etc) for vulnerable households.
  • Social norms that affect understandings of quality of life; of social status; of relations with social fabric.
  • Personal factors (inner to household and people): social status; age; intelligence; education; special needs; gender.

Thirdly, we also explored main consequences. We found all those enumerated by literature: difficulties for feeding; for being educated; for having a good mental and physic health; for living in a house with acceptable conditions; for having social respect; for maintaining relationships… Some of our interviewees found that the consequence of not living in an adequate home was the important one. Others pointed that feeling excluded and the difficulty to maintain relationship were the most hard to overcome. Diversity means that different people need a different combination of factors for their well-being. In any case, we suggest that all these consequences mean, in a broader sense, that fuel poverty avoid people to live the life that they, upon reflection, have reasons to value.

Fourthly and finally, we explored which were the main measures that are being implemented in Spain, and we just found two: the payment of energetic bills and, in a few cases, the promotion of education on sustainable practices. In our research we defend that we need to overtake paternalistic or palliative measures, and we propose a combination and interconnection of innovative solutions capable to challenge the roots of fuel poverty causes. In other words: we can’t be waiting for changes on policies. We also have to promote changes in regulation, in technology, in cultural habits and stablished social norms, in institutions, in our relation between us, in our participation on society, in our commitment to promote energy as a right and not as a commercial good, and in our values.

Let’s imagine what would happen if we evolved towards a definition similar to this…:

Maybe it’s not an easy definition, or it may not be suited for measuring, for monitoring or for modelling… but we think it opens the debate on central issues of fuel poverty up until now hidden: naming “vulnerability” leads us to reflect about questions of recognition. Mentioning the “inability to live a decent life” connects with questions of opportunities and freedom. Putting in the center the idea of “social injustice” engage society’s responsibility, and overcomes the idea of the families in fuel poverty as the unique responsible of this tragedy. Pointing out the “energy regime” and other “structural causes” moves forward the roots of the problem. And aspire to “systemic solutions” invites us to rethink our contribution on tackling the problem.

In essence, it allows us to open the debate of drawing a new model of society fairer, more sustainable and more democratic. A new model in which humans and all living beings are in the center. A new model based on equity, on new ways of participation and taking decisions processes and on collective responsibility. And, above all else, a new model where fuel poverty doesn’t have reason to exist.

[1] Fuel poverty occurs when households have insufficient funds to pay for the most basic levels of energy needed to provide them with heating, lighting, cooking, and appliance use. Boardman (2010).

[2] Fuel poverty is defined as a household needing to spend more than 10% of its income to maintain an adequate heating regime. Boardman (1991).