Sparked by fossil fuel costs, a record high in energy prices is putting European consumers to the test. These days, a utility bill in the mailbox is cause for much trepidation, especially among those barely able to make ends meet.
At local level, cities are wading into the international crisis by offering financial, economic and social incentives that benefit socially vulnerable households. Whether through prompt actions like crowdfunding, or long-term plans, the fight against energy poverty is at the forefront of municipalities’ priorities.
Florence’s solidarity appeal
In Italy, where gas and heat costs have more than doubled in recent months, retirees living on meagre pensions are bearing the brunt of the cost of living hike. For too many of them, squeezing enough money out of their €500 a month pensions to pay for food, rent and energy is all but impossible.
“The social impact is very strong as we’re facing huge increases in bills,” Dario Nardella, the Mayor of Florence and President of Eurocities, told the Guardian. “We’ve received many calls and letters from people who are in great difficulty.”
To those over 65 pondering whether to eat or heat their homes, Florence is now providing a lifeline with ‘Adopt a bill,’ an online fundraising platform to help senior citizens pay for their energy costs.
Launched last week in tandem with the Montedomini Foundation – a local charity working with the elderly – the initiative proved an immediate success.
As word spread like fire on social media and WhatsApp groups, online donations reached €5,000 just on the drive’s first day and €40,000 in four days.
“It’s very impressive,” Nardella said. “The Florentines, when it comes to solidarity, are very responsive.”
“Donations range from €50 to €1,000,” added Luigi Paccosi, President of the Montedomini Foundation. “Those who can, should donate even for those who would like to but can’t.”
The money will reach senior citizens residing in Florence and surviving with less than €9,000 a year. “According to our estimates, they are between 4,000 and 6,000 but that number is possibly even higher,” said Sara Funaro, the Tuscan city’s Welfare Councilor.
A third of Florence’s population over 65 lives alone, facing personal struggles in addition to economic challenges. “At such a difficult time because of gas and energy price hikes, we thought of offering them support to help alleviate the emotional burden that they’re under. The elderly in Florence are not alone,” said Funaro.
“Let’s spare the elderly another shock after the pandemic,” Paccosi added.
Turn off the lights
Like other public institutions and private companies, Florence’s city hall hasn’t been spared. If early estimates are correct, the municipality will soon face over €10 million in electricity and gas bills as a consequence of the price hike.
On 9 February, Florence joined other Italian municipalities to raise awareness about energy woes: for 30 minutes it switched off the lights of its historic city hall to increase pressure on the government and ask national authorities to step in.
Last week, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi announced a €6 billion emergency package to aid both struggling households and companies to tackle soaring costs.
Cities with long-standing commitments to fight energy poverty are well-equipped to rise to the energy challenge.
In Antwerp, for example, two projects addressing climate, social and economic issues provide useful tools in today’s crisis.
For years, the EcoHouse support centre has been offering Antwerp residents energy-saving and eco-building services such as: advice on lowering electric and gas bills, tips from experts on sustainable construction and living, information on legislation on collecting rainwater and using renewable resources, environmental workshops and classroom activities.
Low-income residents can also turn to EcoHouse to apply for loans of up to €15,000 to bring cost-cutting transformations to their homes.
Similarly, the EU-supported SONNET project helps vulnerable residents thanks to measures such as retrofitting buildings with power-saving solutions and renting them to vulnerable residents, leasing power-saving appliances to low-income households, and creating energy communities.
In Antwerp, where over 30 per cent of the population face energy poverty, these efforts are particularly urgent. The city takes a proactive approach: it invests more than €4 million each year to tackle the problem; it tracks down impoverished households; it promotes behavioural change; and it has even appointed a dedicated ‘energy team’ to address citizen requests about power and water supplies.
A portfolio of social and economic schemes mirrors Antwerp’s energy policies in Zagreb, a city that isn’t new to the fight against energy poverty.
In 2018, the ‘Fair solutions for a better community’ project saw students carry out energy assessments in socially vulnerable households. Implemented by the city in tandem with the University of Zagreb and Croatia’s Society for Sustainable Development Design, the initiative brought power-saving improvements and provided energy reduction advice to low-income families.
Over the course of two years, ‘Fair solutions for a better community’ helped improve living conditions thanks to the free installation of draught-proofing of windows and doors, water-saving aerators, timers for electric boilers, energy-efficient LED bulbs, as well as cost-cutting tips.
This year, Zagreb is planning to step up power-saving efforts with the launch of an ad-hoc ‘Reducing Energy Poverty’ scheme tailored to single-parent families, the elderly and families with children. The package will include actions such as replacing old, high-performing appliances and adopting energy efficiency measures in addition to research and educational activities.
Elsewhere in Europe, Sofia’s 2020 project to usher in climate-friendly heating solutions has been allowing poverty-stricken households to save costs in Bulgaria.
The municipally-led initiative assists 20,000 vulnerable families that use ineffective and polluting materials to warm their home.
It prompts them to replace coal and low-quality wood with pellets, air-to-air heat pumps and to connect to gas or district heating grids. The scheme has already brought a reduction in energy consumption, pollution and lowered energy bills.