Fuel poverty is two-pronged

By Brendan Hennessy

Around 20% of all households in Ireland are considered to be in energy poverty, as they spend more than 10% of their income on energy. The latest EU Survey on Income and Living Conditions (SILC) data identify a continuing upward trend in households, both above and below the poverty line, struggling to afford energy. This is also reflected in the work of the Society of St Vincent de Paul (SVP).

The overall demand for our assistance rose by 100% between 2008 and 2012. However, our expenditure for assisting households with energy costs rose by 200%, from €3.8m in 2008 to a high of €11.3m in 2012. This assistance is for all fuel types and covers both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The issues are illustrated in the words of one person we assisted: “I sit out in the kitchen but during the cold spell…I couldn’t light my fire because it was getting a back draft down the chimney, full of smoke… [my son] has bronchitis and [my daughter] has asthma so I’d to get the heaters out and thank God only for the St Vincent de Paul helped me out to get the heaters, and during the very cold spell…that’s all we had was those heaters…Oh my God the doors we had…there was a big gap. You could see out on the street. I went around the house doing my own little thing… put masking tape around the draft on the window…the snake thing for the door, hot water bottles for the kids to heat upstairs and the bedrooms”. The point is this is not untypical.

Energy affordability is not only about being able to buy energy. It is also about housing conditions, the price of fuel and knowing ‘the little things’ that reduce costs. These are the issues that SVP brought to the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resource consultation document ‘Towards a New Affordable Energy Strategy for Ireland’ Survey on Income and Living Conditions’. This document pointed to the importance of retrofitting homes in addressing energy poverty.

Improving the energy efficiency of the national housing stock, both owner-occupied and private-rented, makes financial, economic and social sense.  Investing in energy-efficiency measures is good for household income, jobs, the environment, and human health and welfare.

As to the efficacy of subsidies for retrofitting, we can look to the large Department of Social Protection expenditure on the fuel-allowance and household-benefits package. The €400m spent annually on these allowances dwarfs that of the retrofit budgets of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) yet retrofitting would clearly help reduce the need for the allowances. Retrofitting homes plays an important part in addressing energy poverty, but it should not fall to those already in energy poverty to foot the bill. If Government wants to fund a significant national retrofitting campaign it behoves all stakeholder Departments to contribute to the cost.

SVP’s recent briefing paper ‘Policy Links on Energy Poverty’ contends that the debate must take account of the multi-layered benefits of energy efficiency measures. The positive health contributions are suggested by the quote above. SVP volunteers speak of their fears for children’s education when they visit homes where students have to do their homework in busy family rooms due to the absence of heated quiet rooms. Any resultant reduction in bills takes financial pressure off households, reduces dependence on credit and gives more financial autonomy. Reducing energy use benefits the environment and wider society.

Research, undertaken by the Vincentian Partnership for Social Justice and commissioned by the SVP, shows the positive contribution of energy retrofitting. However, it also points toward continued income inadequacy for households dependent on social welfare. This research, entitled ‘Minimum Household Energy Need’ found that, for certain household types in different accommodation and using different fuel types, improving the BER rating of a home from an E to a B halved the household’s energy costs. Despite this however, such households remained in or close to energy poverty as they still paid more than 10% of their income on energy.

The report warns that: “even at the highest efficiency levels examined, social-welfare-dependent households tended to remain in energy poverty and all faced inadequate income. Consequently policy must address both overall income adequacy and dwelling efficiency”. •

Brendan Hennessy is Membership Liaison Officer, Social Justice and Policy Team, Society of St Vincent de Paul.