Interview by Vladimir Spasić
A few weeks ago, the European Commission launched the EU Energy Poverty Observatory (EPOV) as part of the European Union’s push to address energy poverty across the EU countries. EnergyWorld Magazine spoke with Stefan Bouzarovski, Chair of the Steering Committee of the EPOV and a Professor of Human Geography at the University of Manchester, about his definition of energy poverty and his expectations of the EPOV, but also about energy poverty in Eastern and Central Europe and energy transition.
What is your definition of energy poverty?
As a researcher, I understand energy poverty as a household’s inability to secure a level of domestic energy services (heating, lighting, cooling etc) that would allow it to live a healthy life and fully participate in society. This is a general definition, however, and EU member states have different ways of operationalizing it – mainly by connecting energy poverty to a certain level of expenditure on energy services, or a certain standard of housing conditions.
Why did the EU choose this user-friendly web platform, as some named it, to deal with the energy poverty?
Again, speaking as an expert, I would say that we are now at an important political juncture – the EU is embarking on an large-scale transition towards low carbon forms of energy, and it is important that nobody is left behind. Plus, as I explained in a recent book (http://www.energystudies.net) this is the culmination of a growing recognition that energy poverty affects millions of people in Europe, and that a cross-sectoral and multi-level policy effort is needed to address the problem.
What will be the task of the Energy Poverty Observatory?
As I said in a recent interview, the Observatory is, in essence, a decision-support tool on energy poverty in Europe. We are a service to policy-makers working at different tiers of government: from the local to the European. We aim to provide information, resources and data that will help quantify and monitor the problem and facilitate the implementation of energy poverty amelioration programmes.
What are your expectations of the Energy Poverty Observatory?
I hope to see it working as a powerful hub for sharing data, knowledge and best practices around addressing energy poverty in the European Union. The main element of this is our interactive website, providing data on the extent and structure of energy poverty in Europe, as well as a repository of knowledge, resources and events. More widely, I hope we will help grow and strengthen a network of practitioners, decision-makers and researchers working on energy poverty.
You have spent the last five years investigating the different dimensions of energy poverty in Eastern and Central Europe as part of a project called EVALUATE. What can you say about energy poverty in Eastern and Central Europe?
Eastern and Central Europe has the highest levels of energy poverty in the European Union. This is due to a combination of factors: rapid energy price increases after the fall of socialism, rising levels of income inequality, an energy-inefficient housing stock that in poor condition, systemic issues with the restructuring of energy utilities – from electricity to district heating – as well as, in some countries, the physical lack of adequate energy infrastructures. Plus, the region suffers from cold winters (and, increasingly, very hot summers) as well as persistent cold air inversions in winter. Central European and Baltic countries have been good at addressing many of these challenges over the last 15 years, but Southeastern Europe is lagging behind.
What is the difference between the situation in Eastern and Central Europe compared to Western and Northern Europe regarding energy poverty?
I would say that many Western and Northern European countries do not have the same kinds of structural problems that I described above, and even when they exist they are of a lesser intensity. But there are differences between countries there as well. While energy poverty numbers are elevated in what I call the Atlantic rim countries (UK, Ireland, Belgium, and even France) the extent of the problem is much smaller in Scandinavian countries, mainly due to the nature of energy provision and the quality of the housing stock. I should add that some countries (the UK, Ireland, France) have developed a wide range of mechanisms to deal with energy poverty.
Can you tell us some numbers on energy poverty in EU? How is it challenging to gather high-quality data?
The figure depends on the metric that you use – as there are several ways to measure energy poverty. It is commonly said that at least 50 million households are affected, based on self-reported figures (asking people if they are able to keep their home adequately warm). For a long time this was the only standardised statistic, but the Observatory has now produced a range of different measures. Collecting data is challenging but not impossible.
What are the best measures one country can implement to fight energy poverty?
I would say improving the energy efficiency and overall quality of housing and energy provision is key, but it is also important to support low income households through direct social policy measures. More generally, governments need to ensure that they regulate their energy sector in a way that benefits all citizens, and that the concerns of all relevant stakeholders are addressed in a democratic way when designing new policies.
Energy transition is changing the energy models we used to know. How will this transition change energy poverty?
It is important to ensure that the energy transition is not just a transition to a different set of technologies. I have long argued that it also needs to transform the ways in which we engage with energy in a political and social sense, not just as consumers but also as citizens – and some would argue, ‘prosumers’. Otherwise, we will end up reproducing the same injustices and inequalities that led to the rise of energy poverty in the first place, only with a new set of technologies.
Stefan Bouzarovski is a Professor of Human Geography the University of Manchester, where he leads the Collaboratory for Urban Resilience and Energy within the Manchester Urban Institute. He is Chair of the EU Energy Poverty Observatory, while holding a 5-year Starting Grant from the European Research Council. He also chairs a COST Action titled ‘European Energy Poverty: Agenda Co-Creation and Knowledge Innovation’. He is also a Visiting Professor at the Department of Geography, University of Bergen, Norway. He has authored more than 100 scientific publications, including a book titled ‘Energy Poverty: (Dis)Assembling Europe’s Infrastructural Divide’ (Macmillan 2018). He has advised the European Commission, World Bank, International Energy Agency and United Nations on matters of energy policy and social equity.