future view

Tackling energy poverty together

23 November 2020 • 5 min reading time

The energy supply of the future must be sustainable, affordable and fair. Nonetheless, 8% of Dutch households can barely pay the bill. They are in the cold, limit showering to a minimum... In short, they compromise on living comfort. In the Netherlands, despite recommendations from the European Union, there is no specific policy to tackle energy poverty. TNO is working on this challenge for and with small and large municipalities.

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Energy poverty and the energy transition

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Recommendations to tackle energy poverty

In the white paper Energy Poverty in Energy Transition TNO and partners make recommendations for policy to tackle energy poverty nationally and locally. The policy to tackle energy poverty should not stand on its own, but go hand in hand with social policy, energy policy and policy on the built environment. In this way, a variety of challenges can be tackled simultaneously.

Energy poverty policy, for example, gives direction to the way in which the housing stock can be made more sustainable and priorities in the area of renovation can be set. It looks at the needs of different groups of households. Cooperation between ministries and local authorities is crucial for tackling energy poverty successfully.

A conversation with policy advisor Nyske Janssen and TNO Energy Poverty expert Koen Straver.

“For many, energy poverty is an unknown concept. People don't know exactly what it means, what it means concretely for those involved and how we can combat it,” says Nyske Janssen, policy advisor on social development in the municipality of Rotterdam. Koen Straver, researcher at TNO, adds: “It's about the phenomenon of people being unable to pay their energy bills, or having difficulty doing so, and so having to compromise on other things. Like being able to take a shower only once a week, or just heat the living room while the children are sitting in their room in the cold.”

Social issue on energy poverty 

Both Nyske and Koen are convinced that recognising and tackling energy poverty as a problem goes beyond the issue of income, and involves so much more. After all, if people on benefits or small pensions can also save energy in the home, gains can be made on several fronts: lower CO2, fewer health symptoms (and therefore healthcare costs), and prevention of payment arrears and social isolation.

Koen: “So far, there has been a lack of a methodical approach at national level to measure, monitor and combat energy poverty. This could undermine confidence in and acceptance of the energy transition by society. In our white paper written with partners, we explore the role of energy poverty in the energy transition and, based on extensive research, make recommendations for policies to tackle it.”

“TNO advocates a system that makes energy poverty per municipality transparent”

New insights on the energy transition

Nyske explains: “The energy transition is traditionally seen as a ‘hard’ subject within our municipality as well. It concerns technology, infrastructure and equipment. But the issue of energy saving in the home also belongs in the social domain. That's why it was good to get acquainted through TNO with a varied group of experts and policymakers who shed light on energy poverty from various angles. The white paper also provides new insights with which we can move forward within the municipality. Such as connecting portfolios, departments and employees.”

“We need to better identify where the households suffering from energy poverty are”

No national energy poverty policy yet

This requires, first and foremost, a national policy, and this is not yet in place. The ministries most concerned - Social Affairs and Employment (SZW) in terms of income and poverty, Internal Affairs and Kingdom Relations (BZK) as responsible for making our country free of natural gas and Economic Affairs and Climate Policy (EZK) to make the energy transition a success - should bring those interests together. This would give municipalities, in particular, the necessary handles.

TNO therefore advocates a system that not only makes energy poverty per municipality transparent, but can also be generated at a national level. It includes indicators to determine the energy consumption of households, whether there are debts, what energy label the house has, and more. Many municipalities already make use locally of such analyses, which can be reported anonymously.

In addition, Koen Straver mentions a number of vulnerabilities with regard to energy use. Does someone have an extra need for warmth because he is in need of care, or conversely needs information about energy saving? Such information can help municipalities implement much more targeted policy and programmes.

“We need to better identify where the households suffering from energy poverty are and act accordingly. In order to gain good insight into energy poverty, it is crucial to measure household energy poverty throughout the year. In this way, municipalities gain greater awareness of the energy problems of their citizens.”

“With personas, a vague term such as energy poverty becomes a very concrete picture”

Energy transition affordable for all

According to Nyske, municipalities are still in the dark in this respect. The four largest cities have already tackled this in the context of G4 together with TNO.

“It is a wide-ranging and complex issue. There is consensus from left to right that sustainability must be achievable for everyone. But apart from being able to pay energy bills or not, is investing in sustainability also necessary? As a municipality you can try to stimulate the energy transition with subsidies or purchase discounts on insulation, but many households lack the financial room to make that pre-investment or find it less easy to get hold of the necessary information. Not all households can participate in sustainability and that means that there is a divide that you want to avoid.”

Concrete picture of households with energy poverty

A tool that TNO has provided to combat energy poverty is working with so-called personas, based on international research and practice. These profiles sketch a picture of how households are confronted with energy poverty on a daily basis and how this limits them in terms of comfort, health, social welfare and/or work.

Nyske: “In this way, a vague term such as energy poverty becomes a very concrete picture of how a household experiences energy problems. I myself have worked with a persona of a very elderly couple living on a small pension in a flat. You can write wonderful memos about this at the town hall, but for a targeted policy it’s good to get a well-defined picture of the people you’re doing it for. The TNO personas make this tangible.”

The white paper is written by members of the ENGAGER network, a European research network focusing on energy poverty.

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