Blog – How to tackle energy poverty whilst dealing with a historical rise in energy prices in France

By Axelle Gallerand, IEECP

Gas prices have gone up by 57% since January 2021, and are currently considered as a historical rise for France. French Prime Minister, Jean Castex, announced the plan of a “tariff shield” to freeze energy prices until next Spring. There are currently 3.5 million energy poor people in France, making it is easy to imagine that number rising in the coming months with the current spike in energy prices.

The radio show “Sous le Radar”  discussed this hot topic with host Nora Hamadi and experts Alain Bazot, Noam Léandri and Isolde Devalière. Considering the factors, they attempted to provide answers and solutions on how energy poverty is tackled right now:

  • What are the current tools to protect energy poor households?
  • What other solutions are available?
  • What is it like to go through a spike in energy prices for vulnerable households?
  • And how can energy poor households access guidance and help in these times?

Essential goods are becoming unaffordable

Alain Bazot, president of UFC que Choisir, raised the issue regarding France’s VAT for energy, which is currently up to 20%, leaving consumers even more vulnerable when having to pay high expenditures on basic needs. Mr Bazot underlined that energy should be considered an essential goods in France as it is a basic need and shouldn’t be taxed so high and remain affordable for everyone.

Noam Léandri who used to work at the Observatoire des Inégalités, suggested that the market should be liberalised for all consumers as 1/3 of revenues goes to energy spending in France. He also explained that it is impossible to save up for long term renovations because it is too expensive to invest in them for energy poor households, already struggling financially and with no capacity to afford unexpected expenditures.

Being cold and powerless

This was illustrated clearly when Nora Hamadi interviewed Christine to talk about her experience in never having the means to renovate and afford electricity or gas to heat her home comfortably.

Christine explained that she used fuel oil in the past to heat her home but the oil being too expensive, she had to cut her electricity consumption which led to her pipes freezing and breaking. Resulting in extra costs she couldn’t cover. So in order to adapt, she began using a wood stove to eat and heat her home, as 5 steres of wood only cost 375 euros, the wood stove turned out to be the cheapest option for her. She has struggled to find the cheapest options and explains that: “That not only do you feel cold, but you also feel powerless.”  Christine concludes that she felt unheard and alone in the process of finding a solution for her case.

Chèque Energie

The example of the Chèque Energie, established in 2015 to provide “energy cheques” of around 100 euros for energy expenses, was brought up as a solution to energy expenditures by Alain Bazot, as it is a considered option for vulnerable households who cannot afford energy expenditures.

But due to the rise in energy costs, the current energy cheque is not high enough to help poor households. Mr Bazot emphasized that more modest households could also benefit from the energy cheque, as some live in rural peri-urban areas and have higher fuel prices to travel long distance. Which raised the question of how the energy cheque could evolve with the rise of energy prices in France.

Mr Léandri added that already 1/5 households could benefit from the energy cheque, but around 1 million households do not use it as it is not enough to cover any of the energy expenses, underlining that energy renovations cost a lot more than a 100 euros.

Bringing nuclear back in France

Mr Bazot also offered another solution with France’s nuclear resources. France’s nuclear capacity is 70% of the country’s electricity’s potential, but it is currently being sold overseas, therefore French consumers do not benefit from it, and must pay gas from elsewhere.

Mr Bazot explained that reducing trade overseas and reinforcing nuclear consumption within France would give cheaper electricity prices and would benefit vulnerable consumers. 

It was highlighted by both experts that solutions need to include local authorities that go to door to door and offer direct counsel and solutions.

Tackling energy poverty case by case

Isolde Devalière working for the ADEME national office for energy poverty (ONPE), emphasized that if energy poor households are not followed and assisted case by case and offered solutions and different financing options, they will miss out on these opportunities.

There is a need to have direct contact, going case by case with vulnerable households to reach out to them and guide them through renovation plans. Otherwise, they risk being excluded from a just energy transition.

Mrs Devalière also underlined that a tenant that is dependent on their landlord cannot engage in renovation work. Therefore, there needs to be a legal frame that allows and checks that the landlord does the renovation.

Another solution in place is the “Décret d’indécence” (“Indecence Decree”) which is supposed to protect households from living in energy poor conditions and gives rights to have comfortable living conditions. The decree is based on energy performance of the home and judged indecent if it does not match the criterias.

Isolde Delavière pointed out that a lot of poor households settle for worst performing buildings as the current housing market is very tight, and vulnerable people would rather live in a poorly energy efficient home than have no roof. There should be a push for easier financial access to homes for poor households that currently have to live in the worst performing dwellings. So, it is important to not only give people the means to renovate their home so that it is adequately comfortable, but also give people easier access to those homes that are comfortable and won’t create a dent in energy expenditures at the end of the month.