Access to justice for energy consumers: joining the gaps with the support of the Ombuds

Our Just Energy project (2017-2021) is located at the crossroads between academia and practice. To engage with the real world and to hopefully build an impact, we have looked at the situation in five European jurisdictions: the UK, France, Italy, Bulgaria and Catalonia. We chose those jurisdictions because of their different legal, social, geographical and economic backgrounds. 

We found, however, that they have much in common regarding the accessibility of justice for vulnerable people. In our recent webinar, we presented some of our ESRC justenergy projects’ findings:

  • It is difficult for vulnerable consumers to access formal sources of help;
  • ADR could be strengthened to play a bigger access to justice role;
  • Local actors (community, third sector) are well placed to help vulnerable people;
  • Joining up formal and informal actors is key to addressing access to justice gaps.

Our empirical project has a socio-legal focus and seeks to understand where the gaps are to access justice for those in vulnerable circumstances. One plug for these gaps may be provided by the energy ombuds, as long as consumers are signposted towards this service or find it themselves. Another plug is to think about help on the ground for communities and individuals. This help comes from local initiatives. 

To wrap up, we are developing two practical initiatives to increase access to justice and awareness for vulnerable and energy-poor consumers: a toolkit for practitioners, and a website showcasing cases of access to justice.

Ombuds offer alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for consumers. They form one part of a wider (disconnected) system that ought to assist users of energy to claim their rights and help when things go wrong. They have the potential to form productive links with civil society, business and regulators to create a more systemic approach to tackle energy poverty.

Read here our Article

Ombuds as access points to justice and basic rights

Ombuds have many options to help people in vulnerable circumstances: 

  1. Offering help and signposting using multiple tools, including the telephone. European Directives foresee “single points of contacts” for energy users to turn to when they have questions regarding their rights, the applicable laws and access to redress (article 25 of the Market Design Directive, 944/2019). This role is performed by the ombuds in France.
  2. (Legal) option for making complaints via telephone calls possible. To further assist (vulnerable) consumers and citizens, certain complaints should be handled by the phone. This is already the case in the UK
  3. Collaborate with anti-poverty organisations, social services and local workers to maximise access to the ombuds for vulnerable families, in particular, those with literacy issues or who do not speak the language. This is the case in Catalonia
  4. Permanent cooperation between other sectoral ombuds and regulators to guarantee service and to avoid questions and complaints from (vulnerable) citizens falling between the (legal) cracks. This is the case in Belgium
  5. Offer personalised services and follow-up on the complaints, even those that are not admissible. Technology will never replace human relationships. Vulnerable people might be affected by low self-confidence. Talking with empathetic complaint managers helps them assert their rights and recover the dignity that might have been lost because of many years of humiliating consumer services.
  6. Better acknowledge the different forms of vulnerability. Premiums or social tariffs apply to specific target groups in many sectors and services (healthcare, energy, telecom, water, public transport, etc.). These target groups can be quite different from each other with varying needs. It is, therefore, useful to have a broad reflection on this subject with vulnerable groups and the ombuds to identify the problems and formulate structural policy advice. 
  7. Simplify access to fundamental rights and to maximise the automation of those rights without compromising individual access to those rights. There is a stigma associated with some wording. People should never feel ashamed of claiming those rights.

Ombuds should also be looking into practices of public authorities or economic sectors that can be misleading or damaging to vulnerable groups, such as:

  • Dubious commercial practices, whereby the European ‘New Deal for Consumers’ clarifies which rules the Member States may introduce to protect the legitimate interests of consumers against particularly aggressive or misleading marketing or sales practices in off-premises sales (see Article 3.2 of Directive 2019/2161 on enforcement and modernisation of consumer protection law in the Union). “Greenwashing” should also be included in this scope.
  • Discriminatory practices due to the digital transition and use of artificial intelligence. Consumers may have to use specific IT applications for access to services or are obliged to formulate a query or complaint by digital means only. However, digital illiteracy remains low in Europe
  • Simplifying and harmonising collection and recovery procedures, as well as preventing abuses. The collection procedures of governments and economic sectors differ in the charging of administrative costs and the timing for charging them (e.g. payment terms of 30 days or 15 days with different deadlines for sending invoices after the invoice date and for payment reminders and notices of default). Ombuds should be able to check the transparency and legality of those processes.

In sum, whilst the ombuds can be well placed to plug some of the above-mentioned gaps, the pathways to help consumers access justice need to be shared ones. Ideally, a combination of many actors (NGOs, regulators, advice providers, local community initiatives, GP surgeries, community centers…) need to work together to help users of energy claim their rights. In other words, the system needs to change to include access to energy justice, rather than asking people to take responsibility to assert their rights and defend themselves.

Stay tuned for our upcoming book!

If help does not come from above – let’s go grassroots

More and more research is reaching out to the people and actors on the ground that operate and live in energy poverty. ENGAGER focused on New narratives and actors for citizen-led energy poverty dialogues in the times of the pandemic. Three key points are made:

  1.  Domestic energy should be considered as a ‘human right’ and as social ‘commons’
  2. Inclusive community energy, led by citizens, enables more just and non-discriminatory policy outcomes, as long as barriers to participation, especially the ones related to gender inequalities, are considered.
  3. Citizen energy communities and ombuds have untapped capabilities to help address energy poverty. They can act as ‘engagement brokers’, whistleblowers or champions of the rights and voices of affected persons

We need you for the next steps!

We will implement two projects: a toolkit for practitioners and a repository of examples of access to justice for energy users.

  1. The toolkit will fill the gaps and help practitioners engage with vulnerable people and communities. It aims to bring information to users and to broaden access to justice for energy-poor and vulnerable citizens. 

Please send us an email to help us set it up!!  Here is our timeline: 

You can access our conference padlet for the toolkit here and add to it: https://padlet.com/creutzn/toolkit 

  1. Our next initiative – a platform that tells stories about people’s experiences, shares ideas, and raises awareness does just this. It tells stories of ordinary people and how they have overcome their struggles with the help of different actors. 

Please visit the new platform and send us an email add to it, share it, spread the word so together we can help people access energy justice.

http://www.access2energyjustice.eu

Energy justice in Bulgaria, the paradox of being both last and first

by Marilyn Smith, The Energy Action Project (EnAct).  photos were commissioned by the Schneider Electric Foundation and Ashoka Romania for The Energy Action Project (EnAc). Just Energy has been granted permission to use them only for this blog.

Bulgaria made headlines across Europe in early 2019, when new research showed it having the lowest score – just 0.7 of a possible 100 points – on the European Domestic Energy Poverty Index (EDEPI) (Figure 1). Much less well known is that a Bulgarian energy-related case heard by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is considered by many to be the most important judgment on racial discrimination the court has given. 

Clearly, this country of almost 7 million people warrants investigation of ongoing challenges in relation to energy and concrete steps to address them. 

In 2012/2013, the International Association of Energy Economics (IAEE) noted that 22% of Bulgarians – 1.6 million people – were living in poverty. Based on the U.K. definition of fuel poverty, i.e. that people spend at least 10% of household income on energy, the National Statistical Institute estimated that typical Bulgarians were fuel poor from at least 1999 through 2012. In 2008, the IAEE found that 67% of households went without sufficient heat in the winter – against an EU average of just 8%. A more recent report puts the figure at 50% in 2019, suggesting progress in recent years. However, many Bulgarians still struggle to afford energy: in the EU overall, 6.6 % of households have arrears on utility bills; in Bulgaria, data show 30.1% (second-highest after Greece at 35.6%).

Figure 1 – EU Domestic Energy Poverty Index, 2019

Rates and reasons for high energy poverty

The EDEPI ranking shows a strong divide between northern EU countries and those in the south and southeast. Many were surprised by the results, as energy poverty has long focused on people who cannot afford enough energy to stay warm in winter. The new research incorporated data on inability to stay comfortably cool in summer (Figure 2). 

Figure 2 – Weighting of factors contributing to energy poverty in Bulgaria 

Bulgaria’s climate in continental, but its geographic location and topography, ranging from seaside to mountainous, makes it susceptible to cold air masses from northern Europe and Russia and to warm air masses traveling across the Mediterranean from North Africa. From December through February, temperatures regularly dip below zero; from June through August, they hover around 30°C. The year-round thermal discomfort reported by citizens is directly linked to the poor quality of dwellings:  65% of homes were built before 1990 – and thus prior to implementation of energy efficiency standards.

In terms of building stock, the country’s Communist legacy creates a difficult situation. At the beginning of the 1990s, the government offered ‘give-away’ programmes by which long-term tenants of state-owned apartments could take over ownership at low prices. As a result, many people became owners of properties they cannot afford to maintain or renovate, and the building stock is slowly degrading. With energy prices rising and buildings needing more energy to achieve comfort, many owners have been pushed into energy poverty. Additionally, low incomes make it impossible for many to qualify for loans to upgrade. The case of multi-family buildings is further complicated by the need to have all (or most) owners agree on decisions. In some cases, this is hampered by mutual distrust or differing priorities across residents.

Low income across Bulgaria also plays a major role in high levels of energy poverty: of the 15 poorest regions in the EU according to household disposable income (measured in purchasing power standard [PPS] per inhabitant), 13 are in Romania and Bulgaria.

To keep energy costs down, many families in small villages restrict how many rooms they use in the winter – spending much of their time around the wood stoves they use for cooking and for space and water heating.  Photo: Emil Danailov (c)

At €216 per year, actual energy expenditures in Bulgaria are the lowest in Europe — in fact, only 10% of the €2 315 paid by people in Denmark. But because incomes fall well under the EU average, the lower expenditures account for a higher share of household budgets. Energy bills eat up 14.6% of disposable income in Bulgaria against just 9.7% in Denmark or the lowest share of only 2.8% in Sweden with costs of €571 per year (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Sampling of actual energy expenditures and % of household income spent on energy bills (2014)
Note: Shading represents the lowest to highest actual costs while the size of the circle reflects % of household budget.
Source: ENER. SWD Energy Prices and Cost, 2018.

As the gas network in Bulgaria is poorly developed, use of traditional energy sources is widespread in some of the coldest regions. In rural areas, people rely primarily on solid fuels for heating: 62.8% use firewood and 32.5% use coal (Smarter Finance for Families, 2020).  In deregulated markets, wood prices can soar as the winter progresses, causing further vulnerabilities. (Hoffer, A., Jancsek-Turóczi, B., Tóth, Á., Kiss, G., Naghiu, A., Levei, E. A., Marmureanu, L., Machon, A., and Gelencsér, A. (forthcoming), Emission factors for PM10 and PAHs from illegal burning of different types of municipal waste in households, Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., in review, 2020)

Households that use electric heating are likely to have higher costs than they would if able to use gas. In reality, many resort measures that risk their quality of life, either by underheating or relying on coal and wood, which drives up local air pollution. In 2012 and 2018, thousands of Bulgarians took to the street to protest high fuel prices.

Most low-income households still rely on low quality wood (wood with high moisture content) and coal for heating, which they burn in low-efficiency stoves. They must burn more wood than is technically necessary to stay warm, which drives up their actual costs and creates more indoor and outdoor pollution. Photo: Emil Danailov  (c)

Policy gaps and gains 

Energy poverty is not officially recognised in Bulgarian legislation and awareness of the issue is low among politicians, according to a 2014 report by REACH (Reduce Energy use And Change Habits). The only support currently offered is through the Winter Supplement Program (WSP), administrated by the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, which provides financial aid to help pay heating, electricity or natural gas bills, or for the purchase of coal briquettes or wood. It is available only to households earning less than the guaranteed minimum wage and only for a period of five months. Anyone who has purchased property in the past five years or travelled abroad on their own expenses is ineligible. In 2013, more than 251 876 households received support through this programme.

Across CEE countries, consumers have high expectations with regard to how EU energy policies should improve access to affordable energy – but Member States are not delivering. In fact, most are drastically underspending: across the region, less than one-quarter of targeted energy performance works in houses have been accomplished between 2014-2020. In Bulgaria, the figure plummets to less than 8%.

The situation in rural areas – representing about 25% of Bulgaria’s total population – warrants special mention. Data from the EU Energy Poverty Observatory show that rates of energy poverty in CEE Member States are typically twice as high (14.4%) as in cities (7.9%). Additionally, old homes in these areas have low market value: the cost of renovations – even just to install new heating systems and insulation – may well exceed their worth. Clearly, some sort of subsidy scheme would need to be implemented to stimulate such works but even so, the value of such investment is questionable. As young people move to the city in search of more opportunities, many of these homes are likely to become abandoned within the coming decades. 

That is not to suggest energy poverty is not problematic in urban areas; rather, the challenges are different. Some 18% of urban buildings in Bulgaria are apartment blocks made of prefabricated concrete panels. Typically served by district heating, these are noted for high consumption inefficiencies while the systems are known for high losses. In reality, consumers are captive: with little or no choice for changing the heating system, they become trapped in a self-reinforcing cluster of low incomes, high consumption, soaring prices and lack of investment. Eventually, these elements coincide with high politicisation and degrading energy systems with debts accumulating all along the energy chain.

On a positive note, Bulgaria has launched programs to improve the energy efficiency of homes. For multi-family buildings, through an Operational Programme for Regional Development, a budget of €25.6 million was allocated to cover 75% of the diverse costs associated with bringing buildings to a ‘C’ rating. To participate, all individual unit owners in a given building must demonstrate they can cover the other 25% of the costs.  

More appealing (and more successful to date) is a credit line that provides 20% of funding for energy efficiency in individual households and multi-family buildings. Between 2006 and 2014, more than 50 000 credits (adding up to €27.7 million) were approved, with new windows being the most popular action, followed by the purchase of air conditioners and wall insulation. The scheme was not very useful, however, to low-income households, who could not afford any additional costs or invest in energy efficiency. In effect, poverty itself was shown to be a barrier to energy efficiency.

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Recent support for energy justice

Bulgaria does have legislation that protects people from being disconnected from energy services, while many EU countries only protect customers during winter months. 

In 2015, an extremely interesting case of energy injustice was brought before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU). In the early 2000s, a major utility company, CHEZ Razpredelenie Bulgaria AD (a subsidiary of the Czech government-owned CEZ) was installing electricity meters across many regions – an important advance considering that while under Soviet jurisdiction, most homes had no means to monitor consumption. Whether installed indoors or outdoors, the meters were at eye-level. 

However, in some districts of these towns that are known for high shares of Roma and migrant populations (such as is the case in the district of Gizdova in the town of Dupnitsa), the meters were installed for on electricity poles, at a height of seven meters. While the company avoided any such statement, it was clear they placed the meters high because they felt the districts were prone to electricity theft.

While most homes are connected to the electricity grid, even in small villages, at the household level much of the wiring is haphazard, making it both inefficient and dangerous.  Photo: Emil Danailov (c) 

The communities lobbied to have the meters moved down, arguing that by refusing to do so – regardless of the payment history of particular customers – the practice was a public statement by CHEZ that all residents were untrustworthy. It is important to note that CHEZ was the monopoly provider of electricity to Dupnitsa and the only Bulgarian company to use this practice.

After receiving a large bill, Ms. Nikolova (a shopkeeper) protested to the Bulgarian Anti-Discrimination Commission that the practice discriminated against customers in Gizdova. Although she is not herself Roma, she argued on behalf of the whole community. While the Commission upheld her complaint, it was later overturned by the Bulgarian Supreme Court. Additional actions prompted the Sofia Administrative Court to send 10 questions to the CJEU under the Race Discrimination Directive.

In taking the case to the CJEU, legal experts raised the question of whether people have a right to be able check how much electricity they are consuming, in part to have greater control over their electricity bill and be able to self-manage in relation to what is affordable to them. Further, the applicants raised the question that, if this right is denied to some communities, is it a form of discrimination that should be remedied.  

The CJEU ruled in favour of the applicants, affirming that having access to energy is an essential public service and that the company’s actions were an example of ‘indirect discrimination’ and a form of stigmatisation. The ruling clearly stated that a company must deal with theft or fraud on case-by-case basis: it cannot assume that an entire community is prone to such behaviour. It obliged the company to treat all customers equally and to practice due diligence. 

Ultimately, the ruling was based on the Racial Discrimination Convention and on the inclusion in EU law of the universal right of access to energy. As this ruling was made in a European court, it sets a precedent for all EU citizens. 

While Bulgaria has a long way to go in eradicating energy poverty, some very important steps are underway – and could provide models for other countries, particularly in Easter Europe, to follow. 

Some JustEnergy findings

Our project is coming to an end and we wanted to share some of our findings. 

What is the project about?

This three-year project (2017-2020) investigates access to justice for vulnerable and energy poor consumers. We have done extensive fieldwork in the UK, Bulgaria, Catalonia, France and Italy and collected valuable insights into access to justice and its obstacles for energy poor consumers. 

The main questions asked: has ADR extended the reach of justice to those who have traditionally been excluded from the formal justice system? To what extent does ADR represent a solution to the converging agendas of justice and consumer policy to provide cost-effective, accessible justice, which protects the vulnerable in society? And if ADR replicates some of the well-known limitations of the formal justice system in this respect, then where else can solutions be found? Our research sheds light on timeless questions of socio-legal interest, at the same time as addressing the urgent question of whether the current, radical shift towards informality in European consumer dispute resolution is serving the interests of ordinary citizens.

The project team

The project is led by Dr Naomi Creutzfeldt and Dr Chris Gill who are socio-legal scholars with expertise in ADR, access to justice, dispute systems design and empirical methodology. Part of the team are Rachel McPherson, lecturer in law at the university of Glasgow and Marine Cornelis, energy expert consultant. 

Some key findings

A longstanding concern of socio-legal scholarship has been to investigate how ordinary people do (and do not) access justice. Analyses of legal systems across the world have overwhelmingly concluded that access to justice is highly constrained for ordinary citizens and even more so for those who might be considered vulnerable. Vulnerable and energy poor consumers in Europe face significant barriers in accessing justice

Amongst the solutions offered to remedy the failings of existing systems of justice (too costly, unpredictable in outcome and duration), Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) has featured prominently. With promises of cost-savings, increased party satisfaction, and longer lasting conflict resolution, policymakers in Europe are increasingly pursuing policies to boost ADR provision, at the same time as reducing access to courts. This has been particularly evident in relation to consumer-to-business disputes in Europe, where a large-scale shift has occurred towards resolving disputes out-of-court through the implementation of the consumer ADR directive (2013/11/EU). While the development of ADR has been welcomed in some quarters, there is a lack of empirical evidence regarding the access to justice benefits that have accrued from it, especially for those that are most vulnerable and most likely to be socially excluded. 

            Our empirical data suggests exactly this: the most vulnerable do not access ADR.  The access to justice discourses are often dominated by legal and policy elites, so that issues are framed in narrow, top-down ways that fail to address the reality of people’s everyday “justice problems”. This excludes those who need the system to work for them the most. Some interview extracts are presented here to illustrate:

“Mostly people that go to ombudsmen are like well educated, middle aged, et cetera, and it’s like, are those vulnerable customers?… [Vulnerable consumers might] go to the town hall to see the social worker. But, many of them don’t even knock that door, so I don’t imagine these people going to the ombudsman… They are not knocking any door.” (Catalan Policy 3)

“… we know there’s only a fraction of people that actually come to us… There’s a moral obligation that you want to try to help people that are in a different situation.” (UK Ombudsman 5) 

“You have to try and solve as many problems as you can before you get to ombudsman, usually. I’ve never, again, really thought about them as sort of having a leading role… it’s hard to get complaints through, [in a] sort of timely [way]…” (UK Third Sector 2) 

“… some of the most vulnerable of all you might not be able to identify because, either they’ve fallen off the grid or… Fuel poverty… that’s really hard to pick up, because you might have someone who is paying their energy bill, so, you’ll never pick it up that way. But what they’re doing is, they’re using too little energy, because they can’t afford to. They’re vulnerable but I’ll never pick them up.” (UK Ombudsman 1) 

We also found that local actors (e.g. NGOs) make a substantial contribution to bridging the gap between top-down policy and the energy poor. In this article, we argued that these actors represent an adaptive response to the inherent limitations of state and supra-national action and, therefore, play a key role in the governance of energy poverty. In presenting this argument, we suggest, as an avenue for future research, nodal governance as a lens through which to understand the role local actors play in the governing order for tackling energy poverty (Journal of Consumer Policy volume 43, pages 635–658(2020)). 

This is relevant as the EU mentioned in its new consumer strategy that local level advice for vulnerable consumers will be promoted. You can find a summary here.

At our recent end of project conference we presented some conclusions that fed into our book and future plans.

 Main ESRC Just Energy findings:

1. It is difficult for vulnerable consumers to access formal sources of help;

2. ADR could be strengthened to play a bigger access to justice role;

3. Local actors (community, third sector) are well placed to help vulnerable people;

4. Joining up formal and informal actors is key to addressing access to justice gaps. 

Our book

We are just finishing our book: A socio-legal inquiry into access to justice for vulnerable and energy poor consumers: Just Energy? (Hart 2021). 

How do ordinary people access justice? This book offers a novel socio-legal approach to access to justice, alternative dispute resolution, vulnerability and energy poverty. It poses an access to justice challenge and proposes to rethink it through a lens that accommodates all affected people, especially those who are currently falling through the system. It raises broader questions about alternative dispute resolution, the need for reform to include more collective approaches, a stronger recognition of the needs of vulnerable people, and a stronger emphasis on delivering social justice. The authors use energy poverty as a site of vulnerability and examine the barriers to justice facing this excluded group.

The book assembles the findings of an interdisciplinary research project studying access to justice and its barriers in the UK, Italy, France, Bulgaria and Spain (Catalonia). In-depth interviews with regulators, ombuds, energy companies, third sector organisations and vulnerable people provide a rich dataset through which to understand the phenomenon.

The book provides theoretical and empirical insights which shed new light on these issues and sets out new directions of inquiry for research, policy and practice. It will be of interest to researchers, students and policymakers working on access to justice, consumer vulnerability, energy poverty, and the complex intersection between these fields.

With contributions by Cosmo Graham (UK), Sarah Supino and Benedetta Voltaggio (Italy), Marine Cornelis (France), Anais Varo and Enric Bartlett (Catalonia) and Teodora Peneva (Bulgaria).

Next steps

We will implement two projects: a toolkit for practitioners and a repository of examples of access to justice for energy users.

Toolkit

The toolkit will fill the gaps and help practitioners engage with vulnerable people and communities. It aims to bring information to users and to broaden access to justice for energy-poor and vulnerable citizens. We appreciate your feedback, so please drop as an email, and add to our padlet: https://padlet.com/creutzn/toolkit 

Website 

Our next initiative is a platform that tells stories about people’s experiences, shares ideas, and raises awareness does just this. It tells stories of ordinary people and how they have overcome their struggles with the help of different actors. We would be thrilled to receive more inputs to add to it, share it, spread the word so together we can help people access energy justice.

Event: Access to justice for energy consumers: joining the gaps (2 Oct 2020)

On the 2nd of October 2020, we invite researchers, policy-makers, regulators, NGOs and other stakeholders to come and wrap up the project. We will be presenting the outcomes of our research project and discussing a toolkit for practitioners when meeting vulnerable consumers. We will focus on access to justice, vulnerability and energy poverty and EU Policy with experts from the fields.

Besides our project team (Naomi Creutzfeldt, Chris Gill, Marine Cornelis and Rachel McPherson), confirmed speakers include Stefan Bouzarovski (European Energy Poverty Observatory/University of Manchester), Matt Vickers (Ombudsman Services), Christine Riefa (Brunel University London) and Marta Garcia Paris (Ecoserveis/Assist2Gether).

Do register for the event here https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/access-to-justice-for-energy-consumers-joining-the-gaps-registration-81962681587

Please click the link below to join the webinar:
https://uofglasgow.zoom.us/j/97961103609?pwd=WFVITkF0Rk94RE8ybytMWEJLNTZVQT09
Passcode: 605270

Local challenges & solutions for those living in vulnerable situations in the French countryside

The justenergy research project aims to explore areas where policy, energy poverty and vulnerability intersect, in part, to gain a better understanding of ‘lived vulnerability’. To probe beyond the laws and regulations that define the relationships between energy systems and energy consumers, we have arranged to visit people in their homes.[1]

We chose to visit Réseau Éco-Habitat, close to Compiègne, in the Hauts-de-France region of France, based on its reputation as an innovative non-profit association that helps energy-poor homeowners navigate the complex process of accessing services and service providers to carry out deep energy renovations. Réseau Éco-Habitat  first helps people gain access to financial aid schemes offered by the French agency for housing (Agence nationale de l’habitat [ANAH]) and other public agencies, as well as private actors (mostly foundations) that provide other types of support, including personal assistance and financial aid.

In turn, Réseau Éco-Habitat acts as the coordinator of renovation projects, collaborating with a network of local suppliers ranging from builders and insulators to those with expertise on efficient heating systems, windows, lighting and appliances and equipment. As their name suggests, Réseau Éco-Habitat aims – to the greatest extent possible – to use environmentally friendly and bio-sourced materials. Beyond these technical aspects, collaborators are engaged from the financial community, volunteers, donors and local businesses who offer discounted or donated goods and services. Réseau Éco-Habitat identifies five stages of the process:

  • Identify homeowners living in deep energy poverty.
  • Frame the technical aspects that will optimise choices of materials and work to be done.
  • Mobilise financing and financial assistance available to make the project possible, typically by accessing plans from ANAH, the ‘Conseil départemental’, the ‘Communauté de communes’, Secours Catholique – Caritas France et the Fondation Abbé Pierre and other associations.
  • Plan the project and discuss it to limit the disruption to the family’s life.
  • Accompany the family to learn ‘eco-tips’ that will help reduce energy consumption over the long term.

This outing was carefully planned and assisted by Franck Billeau, founder of Réseau Éco-Habitat, who confirmed their mission as an association “that helps local people living in vulnerable circumstances to get their homes and their lives in a better shape.”

Over visits to two households, we were able to see how Réseau Éco-Habitat operates to engage local actors to help local people and communities. Critical across all steps of the process is a close relationship with Caritas France – Caritas France, a network of volunteers who make long-term commitments to accompany marginalised people. As will be shown below, these individuals are essential to building trust between the homeowner and the many public and private actors they will have to engage with.

Here, we compare and contrast the before and after situations of two households: Benoit, who has inherited the house he grew up in, which is badly in need of repair; and Nadine and Jean-Pierre, who had work carried out in April 2019. In the case of Benoit, everything has been approved but he is waiting for work to commence; we quickly learn that it is causing him a great deal of stress. In sharp contrast, Nadine and Jean-Pierre have survived the process, which can be long and disruptive, are now very proud to welcome us into their home and tell us about themselves.

Together, these visits show us how transforming homes – even those on the verge of being condemned as unliveable – can transform lives.

 

Benoit

Benoit

At 48 years of age and following the deaths of his parents, Benoit lives alone in the house that his family bought when he was 10, where he and his brother grew up. Almost four decades on, not much has changed. The electricity wiring is dangerously old and with few outlets, Benoit relies on a network of power bars to connect appliances and equipment like a TV and clock-radio.

 

While there is a wood-burning stove set into the original fireplace, he has been advised against using it because it produces dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide (CO). In fact, it is likely that only the combination of poor insulation and air leaks around doors and windows have saved Benoit (and earlier the whole family) from CO poisoning. At present, Benoit relies solely on an electric heater. But to keep costs down, he turns it on only at night – and only in the room in which he sleeps. During the day, the indoor temperature hovers around 9°C. (Despite keeping our coats on, after only an hour in the kitchen area, we feel the cold creeping into our bodies.) As the house does not have a hot water system, Benoit uses an electric induction stovetop placque for both cooking and all hot water needs.

As we learn from Hubert, the Caritas France volunteer assisting Benoit, Cambronne is a very small village. The two men knew each other by sight before they officially met. While the house fronts onto a main street, Franck Billeau raises the point that it is like many others in the region: a passable exterior hides the reality of what it is like to live in. Leading up to 2016, the Mayor of the Commune visited several times and advised Benoit of the need to carry out works, an opinion that was seconded by a volunteer of Caritas France. Benoit did not disagree, but saw no way to advance given the disconnect between the scope of work needed and his personal circumstances.

 

The condition of the two rooms in which Benoit spends daytime hours are not really liveable. Gaps around windows and doors let in cold air; old wiring is exposed; and damp and mould are causing wall plaster and coverings to degrade and fall down.

 

Once Réseau Éco-Habit evaluates a house and deems it likely to be eligible for various social assistance schemes, Caritas France volunteers take on the critical role of guiding people like Benoit through the processes and paperwork that would otherwise be overwhelming – and almost certainly a barrier to their accessing help that is designed for their situations.

While a large portion of the costs (often between €25,000 and €50,000) will be covered, homeowners are typically expected to pay a small portion, which often means getting a loan – perhaps for the first time in their lives. To assist with the loan, the volunteers help people prepare a household budget that can be shown to the bank.

In Benoit’s case, a loan of €1,300 needed to be approved – for him, a distressing figure. While preparing Benoit’s budget, Maxime of Réseau Éco-Habitat and Hubert identified the fact that he bought the local newspaper every day as an expense that would have to be cut. It was a harsh blow for Benoit, who felt the paper was his only ‘treat’ and a connection to the outside world. Subsequently, Hubert became keenly aware that Benoit’s trust had been undermined and would need to be regained.

Now, Benoit stays on top of the news by riding his bicycle to a library that is 3 km away, from which he also borrows DVDs. On Saturday mornings, he cycles to a local food bank. (During our meeting, Hubert mentions another charity providing basic necessities and Benoit makes plans to visit it).

The aim for Benoit’s house is to transform the two main rooms, at a total cost of €42,000.  As of 2018, all of the paperwork for assistance has been in place and the funds have been transferred to his account (~€19,000 from ANAH, diverse amounts from other social entities and €9,000 from the ‘Communauté de commune’). In turn, Benoit paid about 50% of what he has received over to entities that have been engaged to carry out the work, and was told the work would begin ‘soon’.

But delay after delay is amplifying Benoit’s anxiety – over both the money paid out so far and the sum still sitting in his account, which he needs to leave untouched for when the work is complete. He worries that ‘what’s gone is gone’, while no work has been started. Clearly reticent by nature, during our visit Benoit speaks little but often repeats the theme, “I hope the work will go ahead quickly.”

Having been reassured in the summer 2019 that the work really would start soon, Benoit packed many of his belongings and, with the help of his brother, undertook work that would reduce the overall costs – including tearing out insulation that does not meet current standards. Six months on, no start date is set.

Building on the relationship Hubert has established, Franck spends a lot of time trying to reassure Benoit. They go over the renovation plans and the financing mechanisms, and Franck vouches for the company that will do the work, saying it is only a matter of time and availability of workers and material.

“Fortunately, I feel morally supported,” says Benoit, referring to Hubert, who he feels he can call as he needs to. For example, Hubert was the first person he called when an initial transfer of €15,000 landed in his bank account – a sum that made Benoit [feel] very uncomfortable.

With money designated for renovation work waiting in his bank account, Benoit is living in a home that is increasingly uninhabitable, and his trust in the system is waning. As we learn later while visiting the office of Réseau Éco-Habitat, this is a bottleneck they need to address. People in Benoit’s situation do not need extra anxiety.

 

Nadine and Jean-Pierre

Nadine and Jean-Pierre, both in their sixties, married in May 2012 – but have been together more than 30 years and have three adult children and four grandchildren. They own the home in which they brought up their family, but with little income, had no means to keep it maintained or carry out any major work.

For as long as they’ve been together, Nadine and Jean-Pierre have been accessing various services through Caritas France.

In 2017, Jean-Pierre suffered a stroke, which resulted in some physical disabilities (neither of them is currently employed). Around the same time, Jacqueline became their dedicated Caritas France volunteer (as with Hubert above, she was there during our visit). Upon seeing the condition of their house, she proposed to call Réseau Éco-Habitat.

“We were cold, the radiators didn’t work,” says Nadine. Outside, she adds, “it was slippery. We fell in front of the entrance. We realised something was wrong with the house.”

 

 

For decades, they had also relied primarily on an old fireplace and a GODIN wood stove, which led to indoor fires more than a few times over the years. Nadine recalls a particularly bad one on a Christmas Eve. “We wanted to call the fire department,” she says, “but we didn’t have a phone. The neighbour had to call.”

 

wood stove

As a result, the inside walls had become blackened. Then there were other problems: a stone wall that was always cold and wet; a leak in the bathroom that would seep everywhere; a washing machine that flooded regularly, etc. The poor state of the house also made it easy for rats and mice to infest the kitchen.

“We were embarrassed,” admits Nadine. A particularly difficult point was that their sons were growing up, getting married and having children, but the state of the house had deteriorated to the point that social workers were cautioning against allowing the grandchildren to visit.

While establishing their eligibility for assistance was relatively straightforward, Nadine and Jean-Pierre also encountered delays of about 18 months in the work actually being done as no ‘operator’[2] was available. But once the work finally commenced – in spring 2019 – everything was done within about 6-8 weeks. Réseau Éco-Habitat, together with local building companies, volunteers, friends and family, carried out renovations both inside and outside of the house. The couple’s three sons added finishing touches, such as painting the interior with supplies donated or discounted by local companies that are part of Réseau Éco-Habitat.

 

cot

 

Post-renovation, a clear source of pride for the couple is how the work helped to rebuild the relationships with their sons and grandchildren. Romane, their one-year-old granddaughter who is just starting to walk and talk, now visits regularly and has an upstairs bedroom where she can have a nap (or sleep over) and leave her toys.

Given Jean-Pierre’s current level of disability, Réseau Éco-Habitat was also able to tap into adaptation funds to do things like install a walk-in Italian shower with various supports and other modifications that will ensure the house remains suitable as the couple ages and perhaps lose other aspects of their independence. This is one way that Réseau Éco-Habitat is thinking ahead about how to ensure people can live with dignity.

 

According to Jacqueline, the house renovation led to a total personal transformation. Nadine and Jean-Pierre no longer hide inside, but are now actively engaged in the community.

“We’ve got people who come to the house to visit,” says Nadine. “Now, I even go to the hairdressers – and we often go for a walk with our friend from Réseau Éco-Habitat.” In fact, she says, “We’ve never travelled so much: maybe we’ll go to Paris!”

And about those visitors? Shortly after the work was completed, the housing minister Julien Denormandie and the press came by to see the transformation.

Réseau Éco-Habitat

Finally, we visit the offices of Réseau Éco-Habitat, located in a recently refurbished factory, where we met with four members of staff (Franck, Marie-Claire, Maxime) and two additional Caritas France volunteers, Paule and Marc; as well as Pierre, the president Réseau Éco-Habitat . The discussion highlighted the importance of the volunteers and social connections in the process of truly transforming lives.

The group noted different forms of vulnerability that households face as well as the hidden costs of poverty. In this rural area dotted with small towns, many of these households are physically isolated and, as in the case of Benoit, the actual living situation is often invisible, hidden behind facades in good condition.

“Living in seclusion at home is only a reflection of the situation: you withdraw into yourself, everything becomes complicated,” says Marie-Claire.

This raises the point that all partners consider each renovation project also as a ‘life project’. They recognise that engaging in a retrofitting project forces people who typically have a very ‘day-to-day’ existence to project their lives well into the future. Planning ahead for the next year and a half is a huge challenge: it is often necessary to give the families some time to ‘see’ themselves commencing on this journey and accepting volunteers into their lives. In this regard, each project requires time to mature.

Additionally, telling people who have a hard time making their income last through to the end of each month that work costing €50,000 will be performed on their home can be overwhelming. While the volume of paperwork can be overwhelming too, and the time required frustrating, with guidance from the volunteers, the homeowners gain new life skills. Over time, they show pride, for example, in having completed the application and submitted necessary documentation on time. The change in people’s physical and mental well-being following the renovation work is obvious: they physically straighten up, they smile. Often, they re-enter society after long periods of self-isolation. Some, say the group, even re-enter the workforce.

The role of the Réseau Éco-Habitat team is more on ensuring that homeowners feel supported regarding the technical aspects of the renovation, as there are many things to discuss about what work, materials and equipment are appropriate for each home. Choice of insulation is one example: while adding inside insulation is cheaper than applying outdoor cladding, homeowners need to understand that it will add about 15 cm to each wall, effectively reducing the overall floor area on which the value of their home is calculated. People have to understand the trade-off between the value of a smaller, but much more energy efficient house – and ultimately have to take the final decisions.

Maxime recalls a couple who were experiencing a lot of tension in their home. At the end of the renovation work, they became more relaxed and were able to mend relationships with their children. The parents felt safer about their children’s future and their young son started talking and began to invite friends over after school, which was not the case before the work was done.

Building a long-term, trusting relationship with the people they support is key for the volunteers, who encourage families to believe in the change and help them discover what is best in each circumstance. It is, they admit, usually a long process that requires a deep commitment.

All parties agree on one critical point, however. While the actual renovation work organised by Réseau Éco-Habitat is not overly cumbersome once underway (usually taking 6-8 weeks, during which time people have to relocate), the time it takes to go through the processes is too long. It is also a complicated process, particularly as there are a lot of middlemen and typically takes 12-18 months. In extreme situations, such delays can be a matter of life and death.

“We’ve had cases without accompaniment,” says Maxime, “but after a while, people gave up, maybe because there was too much distance.”

Réseau Éco-Habitat will soon become an ANAH ‘operator’, i.e. an entity entitled to receive and directly manage public funds for renovation, which should make procedures more fluid and timing more predictable.

roundtable

Concluding remarks

On our way back to Paris on the train we were left very humbled. The work that Réseau Éco-Habitat  and the Caritas France volunteers do is remarkable. In many ways, they are ‘translators of rights’, bringing to people the options they have to seek help and support. The association’s staff and the volunteers they partner with are clearly fully committed to helping people define and navigate ‘a life project’ and to make things better for them. It was a truly eye-opening experience to be able to visit people in their homes and to see first-hand what it means to be vulnerable, to live in isolation and not to know who to turn to. The delicate work of mobilising local resources to help local people is remarkable. This work cannot be done without deep bonds of trust, which are built over time and with the patience of admirable people.

 

[1] Naomi (https://esrcjustenergy.wordpress.com), Marine (https://nextenergyconsumer.eu) and Marilyn (www.en-act.orgwww.coldathome.today) visited Réseau Éco-Habitat and two families in February 2020. All photos were taken by Marilyn Smith and are subject to copyright.

[2] An ‘operator’ refers to a legal entity entitled to receive and manage public funds.

Co-creating the right to energy in theory and practice – Workshop report

The Right to Energy Workshop (Groningen, 8-9 January 2020) was organised by the EU ENGAGER COST Action European Energy Poverty: Agenda Co-Creation and Knowledge Innovation (2017-2021). The Right to Energy is a way of framing energy poverty for better, fairer and cleaner energy access. Underlying issues are presented in the Policy Brief ‘The Right to Energy in the EU’, published in June 2019.

This report highlights some key points of the presentations delivered on the first day and outcomes of the workshop on enforcement of energy rights organised by Marine Cornelis on behalf of the ESRC Just Energy team.

Participants from all around the world underlined that the notions of a ‘right to energy’ and ‘energy justice’ go far beyond energy poverty mitigation. ‘Energy’ means a lot of different things, depending on the person and on the situation. Advocating for universal a right to ‘energy’ may not be the right path, but calling for a right to energy services, such as a comfortable home, light, mobility and safe energy supply could be a way forward (Gordon Walker, Lancaster University).

An ‘energy right’, as a conceptual framework, relies on ‘fundamental’ and ‘supplemental’ energy rights. Fundamental energy rights are the right to access energy, use related services, efficient products and management technologies, and also access information, and of course, afford energy expenses. ‘Supplemental’ energy rights imply the right to participate in energy policymaking, to select the type of energy supplier and the sources of power, and also the right to accept or refuse the payment of certain services (Chian-Woei Shyu, National Chung-Cheng University, Taiwan).

Currently, as underlined in the Seventh Sustainable Development Goal (SDG7), the right to energy supposes having an available supply, infrastructure and a provisioning system. But this is not enough to guarantee that persons do get electricity when they need, are warm enough, use efficient appliances or can afford the payment of their bills. Therefore, we could certainly add the right to have applicable laws, policies and regulation correctly enforced, such as the right to lodge a complaint and “simple, fair, transparent, independent, effective and efficient out-of-court mechanisms for the settlement of disputes (…) through an independent mechanism such as an energy ombudsman or a consumer body, or a regulatory authority” or an Alternative Dispute Resolution entity (article 26 of the Electricity Market Design Directive – (EU) 2019/944).

Not addressing the Right to energy increases vulnerability

The right to energy is intertwined to the respect of the person and their Human Right to dignity. Power disconnection affects deeply one’s feelings: their self-respect, their capacity to self-determination and their public recognition. Even in Western Europe, some public services or administrations are wary of those who cannot provide for themselves (Katrin Großmann, University of Erfurt), and this fosters mistrust of institutions, companies or bank services. The sense of guilt can be significant: many people adapt their lifestyle to cope with their difficulties but believe they must keep appearances and do not seek help.

Many citizens lack awareness of their energy rights and what they can to do in case they are facing a problem. Unethical commercial practices and misinformation on the available tariffs and support schemes are widespread (e.g. eligibility for the social bonus in the case of Spain). Certain persons may even be reluctant to claim their benefits because they do not trust the system and believe they will have to pay for later. Some fear bureaucracy and the perceived high costs of redress. Consumer dispute resolution is, in the majority of EU country, completely free. Legal help at no fee may be available under conditions, but there the fear of losing the case and having to pay extra legal expenses prevents certain people from acting. Many women believe that justice is for men, not for them, and in practice, they may not even have their name on the supply contract. Judges may also not be equipped to understand the challenges at stakes.

The very concept of energy is a challenge for many — understanding how energy supply and networks works and therefore, its importance and its impact is not straightforward. There are gaps between the energy consumption reduction objectives and access to information on how to make a difference. Despite specific provisions on energy efficiency in EU law, average citizens do not know the solutions and opportunities to moderate their demand. Understanding the energy bill is often so hard that people cannot figure out the amount they should be paying, or if they have arrears. Sometimes experts from social services have trouble detecting debts and situations of vulnerability.

Tailored information provided by trusted institutions such as (local) governments should be more widely available. Media should be more active in promoting energy efficiency information and public awareness. Focusing on the negative aspects reinforces adverse feelings within the public, which then may face help offered with hostility.

Perceived humiliation and unfairness coming from service deprivation and not addressing energy poverty opens the gap for populist ideas to take over (Katrin Großmann, University of Erfurt). In certain countries, such as Mexico, some people are criminalized for being energy-poor and fighting for their rights to a safe supply (Umberto Cao, Centre Norbert Elias). The right to energy is closely linked to governance and democracy, as well as climate transition and broader justice objectives.

Screenshot 2020-01-13 at 11.26.23

Energy justice opens the door to a broader concept looking at costs, benefits, procedures, and recognition at a worldwide level. Energy justice is very linked to animal and environment conservation. The more we fight energy poverty through decarbonisation strategies, the more certain vulnerable groups will be at risk because of the difficulty to access natural resources. There is a fundamental energy injustice coming from the decarbonisation of our societies. For instance, in Ghana and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the race for raw material leads to health and safety issues for the miners. Therefore, “pure energy justice may not be possible; it may pragmatically be picking your poison or choosing winners” (Benjamin Sovacool, University of Sussex).

Find Marine’s tweets and a video summarising the first day here.

10 points on the European Green Deal – social issues and addressing energy poverty

Here are a few intakes by our policy consultant Marine Cornelis on energy poverty and social justice extracted from the European Green Deal Communication presented on 11 December 2019. This is not an exhaustive analysis.

  1. The first point is – of course – the Just Transition fund “to leave no one behind”. The most vulnerable people and territories are likely to suffer more from climate change and environmental degradation. There are different needs for support to become more resilient and fit for the transition. As a result, the Just Transition Mechanism will focus on the most vulnerable people, regions and sectors most affected by the transition and currently dependent on more polluting systems. Support will be linked to promoting a transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient activities. To protect those most affected, workers and citizens will have access to re-skilling programmes, jobs in new economic sectors or energy-efficient housing. The fund will mobilise European public and private resources as well as the EIB Group. The Commission will work with the Member States and regions to help them put in place territorial transition plans.
  2. A “renovation wave” is fundamental: the Communication describes renovation schemes as “effective programmes” to reduce energy bills and help the environment”. The EU and the Member States will “engage in a ‘renovation wave’ of public and private buildings”. “Particular attention will be paid to the renovation of social housing, to help households who struggle to pay their energy bills.” The Commission sets the intention to work with stakeholders on a new initiative on renovation in 2020.
  3. The Commission aims to rigorously enforce the legislation related to the energy performance of buildings. It will start with an assessment in 2020 of Member States’ national long-term renovation strategies (as part of the requirements under the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive).
  4. The issue of jobs and skills, and in particular the conversion to “greener” jobs, is recurrent, in particular in the industrial and construction sectors. The circular economy also “offers great potential for new activities and jobs.”
  5. The Commission strongly encourages Member States to enforce and undertake social fair action programmes and strategies. The intention to build a socially just transition “must also be reflected in policies at EU and national level. It includes investment to provide affordable solutions to those affected by carbon pricing policies, for example, through public transport, as well as measures to address energy poverty and promote re-skilling.”
  6. To that aim, in 2020, the Commission will produce guidance to assist the Member States in addressing the issue of energy poverty. 
  7. The European institutions have learned their lesson after the yellow vest crisis in France and the debate over the “fairness” of the carbon tax. The reference is obvious: “Coherence of climate and environment policies and a holistic approach are often a precondition for ensuring they are perceived as fair, as illustrated by the debate on taxation of various modes of transport.” Indeed, “recent political events show that game-changing policies only work if citizens are fully involved in designing them. People are concerned about jobs, heating their homes and making ends meet. EU institutions should engage with them if the Green Deal is to succeed and deliver lasting change.”
  8. To that aim, the Commission will launch a European Climate Pact by March 2020 to focus on three ways to engage with the public on climate action:
    1. Information and good-practice-sharing on environmental protection, the climate crisis and measures to counter it. The EC aims to use a variety of channels and tools, “including events in Member States, on the model of the Commission’s on-going citizens’ dialogues.”
    2. Grass-root collaboration beyond borders: “Real and virtual platform for people to express their ideas and creativity and work together on ambitious action, both at the individual and collective level. Participants would be encouraged to commit to specific climate action goals.”
    3. Capacity-building through information, guidance and educational modules could help exchanges on good practice. “The Commission will ensure that the green transition features prominently in the debate on the future of Europe.”
  9. On taxation, the Commission wants to stimulate environmental-friendly consumption by “sending the right price signals and providing the right incentives for sustainable behaviour by producers, users and consumers”. At the national level, the European Green Deal will create the context for comprehensive tax reform, removing subsidies for fossil fuels, “shifting the tax burden from labour to pollution and taking social considerations into account.”
  10. The Commission makes a direct mention of environmental justice and the possibility for citizens to seize the Court to fight crimes against the environment. “The Commission will consider revising the Aarhus Regulation to improve access to administrative and judicial review at EU level for citizens and NGOs who have concerns about the legality of decisions with effects on the environment. The Commission will also take action to improve their access to justice before national courts in all Member States. The Commission will also promote action by the EU, its Member States and the international community to step up efforts against environmental crime.”

Report on moving beyond the state-of-the-art in energy poverty measurement

The ESRC Just Energy team has contributed to a new report on the current state of the art in energy poverty measurement, overviewing existing knowledge gaps and new approaches. This report has been edited by Siddharth Sareen and Harriet Thomson as part of the work of the ENGAGER COST Action.

With inputs from seventeen leading experts, this report provides an excellent overview of ongoing discussions on energy poverty. It provides cutting edge insights on energy poverty metrics – in terms of prevalent and emerging approaches, and policy levers for energy poverty governance. The report also overviews existing knowledge gaps and provides recommendations for further action.

ESRC Just Energy aims to look at the links between energy poverty and vulnerability and access to justice. Our contribution focuses on complaint service metrics, which have been identified as a major/urgent gap to look at when measuring energy poverty.

Have a good reading!

A Citizens’ Energy Forum focused on youth and climate change

Our policy consultant Marine Cornelis attended the 11th Citizens’ Energy Forum on behalf of ESRC Just Energy.

Since 2008, the Citizens’ Energy Forum has been steering European efforts to create a better framework for consumer rights. These unique events gather experts and advocates from all around the continent. DG Energy’s Vulnerable Consumers working group, the ancestor of the Energy Poverty Observatory, was built following this initiative.  Every year, discussions heat up over consumer protection schemes and the best way to engage the population. 

The 2019 edition took place in a very different context than the previous years. All around the world, marches for the climate and initiatives like the Extinction Rebellion are building momentum over the climate crisis. The Energy Union package is now fully adopted, waiting for its transposition in member states laws. European policymakers acknowledge the urgency to build a fair and inclusive energy transition for all and announce a European green deal. The debate, therefore, no longer revolves around the role of the consumer in the energy transition, but rather the power of the citizen to build climate resilience. 

For the first time, the European Commission decided to invite students and youth organisations to take part in the debates. Young people provided fresh, apolitical, grounded and essential feedback. For instance, they stressed that energy issues could not be tackled without those relating to mobility, the quality of air and the rapid urbanisation of cities. Cooperation is essential: need to act together, we need to be strong, and any action counts. The debate on climate change financing measures concluded with the importance of putting the financial sector at the service of global energy efficiency and renewable sources objectives. The carbon tax should be fair for all: all consumers, including the most vulnerable, may end up paying the price.

Building a consumer-centric transition also supposes a holistic view of energy. Comfort at home, cooling and heating needs are basic needs. Better communication will lead to consumer ownership. Talking about the power supply is more engaging when people understand and make references to things they can relate to, such as the cost of a 5-minute shower or the use of a kettle. kWh are an abstract concept for almost everyone. It is the only way people can take control and put their choices into play and enforce their consumer rights, including their right to complain. It is worth noting that half of the energy experts in the room did not know their household energy consumption. Young people remind us that citizenship is not an abstract concept when talking about climate change. Climate issues go beyond energy; citizenship is about sharing the single planet we have. 

However, while the issue of accessibility of energy markets for the most vulnerable and deprived populations was announced in the programme, no panel specifically examined it. The absence of the Energy Poverty Observatory was noteworthy. At best, practical solutions to be implemented to fight fuel poverty and support consumers were briefly outlined. It’s regrettable, 90% of Europeans believe that it is Europe’s responsibility to fight against fuel poverty and to ensure a fair energy transition that leaves no one behind.

In France, a new law on energy and climate to reduce the number of leaky homes and address energy poverty

On 25 July 2019, French deputies and senators agreed on a text aimed at gradually eliminating the “passoires thermiques” (literally, the “thermal sieves”), i.e. the housing that is very poorly insulated (classified as “F” or “G”). Housing conditions are one of the primary cause of energy poverty, and the main focus of NGOs and activists in France. Our consultant Marine Cornelis reports on the situation.  

In France, according to the Energy Poverty Observatory, 15% of inhabitants report having suffered from the cold for at least 24 hours during the winter of 2017. 11.6% of French people spend more than 8% of their income to pay their energy bill for housing and are among the poorest.

The many available tools to retrofit housing have not yet been able to reduce energy poverty

The French approach to energy poverty mainly focuses on the quality and energy performance of the dwelling, although many generous redistributive measures are in place (solidarity income (RSA) or housing subsidies (APL)); as well as targeted programmes to combat energy poverty (Chèque Energie). The extensive network of well-coordinated actors, the RAPPEL, along with the Energy Poverty Observatory, lead the battle against energy poverty.

Regarding retrofitting and improving the quality of the dwelling, the primary tool since 2017 is the national housing agency, ANAH’s Living Better Serenity programme. More than 50 thousand households renovated their homes through this programme. It aims to improve the thermal performance of private housing by providing dedicated support to energy-poor occupants. It translates into works subsidies, an additional grant (Prime Habiter Mieux), and a Zero Rate Loan (Eco-Loan Habiter Mieux). Although not explicitly designed for households affected by fuel poverty, some energy suppliers (EDF, Engie, Direct Energie) can also offer significant loans for renovation work.

But the measures in place are not enough. NGOs, led by the RAPPEL network, often point out that the implementing decree defining the minimum energy performance criterion to be met for housing to be qualified as “decent” is insufficient and too vague. In their opinion, renting thermal sieves should be outlawed and homeowners encouraged to carry out energy efficiency work, as stipulated in the Energy Transition Act in 2015.

pexels-photo-804392

The provisions of the 2019 Energy-Climate Act

The final draft text proposes the implementation of an incentive scheme in several stages:

  1. From 1 January 2020, some energy renovation aid schemes will be reviewed (conversion of the energy transition tax credit into a bonus for low-income households, the opening of the programme for landlords, etc.).
  2. From 1 January 2021, owners of leaky homes will only be able to adjust rents in strained areas if they carry out work to reach at least the energy class E. The same applies to the request for a contribution from tenants to carry out energy-saving work that the landlord must undertake to reach energy class E (Article 3 Ter).
  3. As of 1 January 2023, a minimum energy performance criteria must be respected for all housing units for them to be qualified as “decent”. As from 1 January, 2028, a dwelling energy consumption must not exceed the E threshold of 330 kilowatt-hours per square metre per year of primary energy (labels F and G of the energy performance diagnosis). This obligation does not apply in the event of technical, architectural or cost constraints disproportionate to the value of the property.
  4. From 1 January 2022, sellers of a leaky home (“F” or “G” energy class) will have to provide, in addition to the energy performance diagnosis, a complete energy audit of the property. This energy audit must include a comprehensive work programme, an estimate of the cost of the work and financial assistance to finance the work (Article 3f). From that date, real estate professionals will also be called upon to promote the energy renovation of properties that pass through their hands. All real estate advertisements will have to include the energy performance of the property, the estimate of energy costs (heating and domestic hot water), as well as the obligation as from 1 January 2028 to respect the energy performance standard for all the dwellings (Class E). Real estate professionals who do not comply with these obligations are liable to financial penalties (Article 3f).
  5. From 2028 onwards, when selling or renting a residential property whose energy consumption exceeds the E threshold, owners will be required to the “mention non-compliance with this obligation in the advertisements relating to the sale or rental” (in the property advertisement, and the sale or lease contract, for example = certificate of non-compliance of the property). The other implications of failing to comply with the work obligation will be defined by the Parliament in 2023, as part of the five-year energy programme created by the Energy-Climate Act.

Frise-lutter-contre-les-passoires-thermiques-1024x569

Source: EFFY

NGOs deplore the lack of ambition of the final text

The Senate’s examination of the draft law had led to the adoption, against the opinion of the rapporteur and the government, of an amendment incorporating into the criteria for “decency” of housing, from 2023 onwards, a final energy consumption ceiling with a maximum threshold of 330 kWh of primary energy consumption per square metre and per year. However, this amendment is not included in the final version of the text after it has been submitted to the Joint Committee.

NGOs regret that the content of the draft final text is not binding and that its impact is therefore limited. As the Rénovons! initiative recalls President Emmanuel Macron’s program was clear: “The rental of energy sieves will be prohibited as of 2025“. However, the Government seems to try to avoid actually implementing this provision.

Finally, it should be noted that Act No. 89-462 of 6 July 1989 on improving rental relations has been amended: for housing to be decent, it must not exceed a maximum threshold of final energy consumption per square metre per year. A decree will define this threshold no later than 1 January 2023, i.e. after the next presidential elections…

Sources and further reading:

Effy, 30 July 2019: Rénovation énergétique : Que faut-il retenir de la loi énergie-climat ?
RAPPEL, 29 July 2019: Rénovation des passoires thermiques : version finale du projet de loi relatif à l’énergie et au climat