While fossil fuels continue to dominate our power supply, and 75% of EU buildings are deemed energy inefficient, up to one in four European households cannot afford to adequately heat, cool, or light their homes.
The European Economic and Social Committee has recently called on the EU and member states to enact concrete measures for equal access to energy. Meanwhile, many cities are already embarking on innovative local projects to tackle social exclusion while implementing climate actions and mitigating present and future energy poverty effects.
Create an energy poverty plan
Energy poverty primarily effects economically vulnerable groups whose income barely covers rent. A household is already considered to suffer from energy poverty when more than 10% of its income is spent on energy costs.
By spring 2021, this applied to about 43,000 families in Amsterdam, with the numbers being much higher now. With this in mind, Amsterdam has intervened to mitigate energy poverty.
The municipality has issued grants to help pay the energy consumption of minimum income households to compensate for part of the increased energy costs in 2022. It has also set up a safety net scheme for those facing problems due to high energy costs. This consists of monitoring by the energy supplier to signal when people are struggling to pay their bills, budget and energy-saving advice and an annual payment plan, for example, a debt relief loan or the provision of individualised special assistance.
Additionally, the city supports residents in saving energy by providing tips and materials, installation through a neighbourhood approach and discounts when purchasing energy-efficient home appliances. Data shows the financial situation of citizens at risk of energy unaffordability has significantly improved after implementing these local measures.
Encourage local energy communities
Bologna has launched a pilot project, known as GECO, that involves the university, residents’ associations, and the regional energy agency to design a local green energy community. The project aims to make citizens aware and involved in changing their behaviour to meet energy goals and simultaneously create alternative governance mechanisms.
It began in Pilastro, a socio-economically vulnerable neighbourhood in the 1960s, which was home to mixed populations living in social housing or low-rent apartments. Roveri followed – an industrial area with many factories, warehouses and the EU’s largest solar power plant on industrial rooftops.
By sharing their energy data and increasing local knowledge, Pilastro-Roveri will test tailored strategies to combat injustice and exclusion in the energy transition.
Similarly, Valencia boosted its commitment to establishing local energy communities last year. Now, the Spanish municipality is looking for inspiration in peer cities such as Valladolid.
Set money aside
Rocketing energy prices can also be tackled by innovative financial agreements, like energy performance contracts that help share the costs with other organisations, including energy companies.
Valladolid makes the company pay for a big chunk of renovating homes to make them more energy efficient and then recoup the investment and profit from the energy savings that result.
On the other hand, programmes initially launched to mitigate the impact of rising energy costs may have fallen short on investment after too many months of unaffordable prices.
Proof is the city of Vienna, which had to expand its grant deadline and requirements to include more families for longer after some household bills doubled. The city has also increased funds from 6 to €26 million. Its schemes ”Energy support plus” and ”Vienna Energy Bonus’ 22” offer financial help for energy cost arrears or reminders and unaffordable annual bills.
“Many Viennese are noticing the effects of the currently high inflation rate in everyday life,” says Peter Hacker, Executive City Councillor for Social Affairs, Public Health and Sport at Vienna City Council. “The City of Vienna is supporting a large number of people, especially with increased energy costs, with a special focus on those who need support most urgently.”
Part of Vienna’s energy support is also based on sustainable measures for thermal renovation of old buildings, energy-efficient new construction and subsidies for ecologically sustainable energy systems.
Meanwhile, residents of Utrecht on a minimum or middle income and students will receive an extra monthly allowance to cover energy bills costs. The municipality set aside €7 million for this purpose.
Engage in housing renovation
The promising shift towards a faster and more sustainable energy transition for all can become an opportunity for mitigating energy poverty. For example, housing renovation improves energy efficiency and reduces living costs.
In this regard, Lille Metropole created Amelio. The project supports low-income households in renovating homes to avoid energy insecurity and poverty in the long-term.
Operation managers, thermal engineers, occupational therapists, social workers, and lawyers work together to provide free information, advice, and support to facilitate metropolitan residents’ renovation projects.
Amelio works in three areas – a network head of a one-stop shop that offers activities, energy information centres that are spread throughout the territory, and personalised home support services that are put in place upon request.
Since 2014, more than 20,000 households have been advised by Amelio, which last year witnessed an increase of requests by 38% compared to 2020.
Invest in green solutions for the future
For the short-term, Amelio offers advice on eco-gestures, the supply of small energy-saving equipment, and social recommendations. In the medium term, tenants and landlords can get mediation and finance for small works. Operators can also advise the household on a renovation programme.
However, not all houses can be adapted or can undergo renovation work. For that reason, Brussels City Council has agreed on an energy package that bans rent increases for almost half of the households, those who live in high energy consumption houses.
Other cities centre their attention on the future by setting up long-term strategies. Hanover will host a sustainable and affordable housing project led by the European Investment Bank (EIB), budgeted for €60 million. A new set of 232 social and 408 affordable energy-efficient apartments will welcome economically vulnerable households.
“The EIB loan will significantly contribute to maintaining the housing stock in the city at an affordable level for broad sections of the population. At the same time, it’ll make it fit for the future in terms of climate protection and adaptation,” says Thomas Vielhaber, Director for Urban Development and Construction at Hanover municipality.
In this sense, projects that boost social and environmental goals at the local level are vital to economic growth, while leaving no one behind in the transition. The current geopolitical scenario with the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent rocketing energy prices places policymakers in front of an ever more pressing need to radically transform Europe’s energy system and increase access to affordable and clean energy for all. Local governments are acting, and speaking out, to say that when it comes to identifying households at risk of energy poverty and acting on it, the local level is best suited for the job.