[17.08.21] Guest article-Solutions to Tackle Energy Poverty: Achievements and Lessons from the STEP Project
By Eoin Kelly, Energy Policy Officer at BEUC
STEP is a Horizon 2020 project managed by BEUC, The European Consumer Organisation, aimed at tackling energy poverty across Europe. It runs across nine countries in Europe through a network of national consumer organisations, and recently celebrated its second birthday. Its three main pillars are training, advice and policy.
Regarding its policy and advocacy goals, STEP partners initially aimed to focus on the national implementation of the Clean Energy Package. However, due to Covid-19, partners had to temporarily shift their lobbying efforts to national governments’ emergency actions around the pandemic and recovery plans.
As part of national emergency actions and recovery packages, STEP partners lobbied for a moratorium on home energy disconnections during the first wave of the pandemic, as well as requesting assistance from government and energy suppliers in covering the cost of energy bills. As a result, some countries opted for reductions in energy prices, payments in instalments or deferring of payment. These were seen as key solutions to avoid significant rises in the number of energy poor consumers during the pandemic.
At the European level, STEP produced a set of policy recommendations in order to better reflect the pandemic context. This document called for the inclusion of energy poverty mitigation in Covid relief funds, as well as highlighting how to improve low efficiency housing through instruments in the Resilience and Recovery Funds.
The Digital Gap
Another issue created by the Covid-19 pandemic was that many outreach activities to vulnerable and energy poor consumers were forced online, such as STEP’s energy workshops, which became online trainings. This conversion to a more digitally connected life has highlighted what we refer to as “the digital gap”: consumers who are vulnerable to energy poverty may also suffer from digital exclusion, meaning they are not reachable via digital means. This is worth bearing in mind not simply during the pandemic, but also given the increasing importance of digital access for consumers in paying bills, completing tax returns, and other day-to-day requirements.
The influence of the STEP programme at national level has been diverse: advocacy from Lithuanian partner ALCO saw STEP mentioned explicitly in the government’s National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), while Polish partner FK has been invited to a government panel tasked with defining and alleviating energy poverty. Slovakian partner SOS has collaborated with the energy regulator to create an ombudsman service dedicated to energy issues. Meanwhile in Portugal, the government is due to unveil a home renovation voucher scheme that will be expanded to include energy poor consumers, thanks to input from STEP partner DECO. In the UK, Energy Company Obligations have been in place for many years and are currently under revision; this scheme already considers the energy poor.
One topic that has repeatedly been shown to be an issue in the project so far is in tackling the private rented sector, which is home to many of the lowest income households, and among the worst energy performing housing stock. At the European level, BEUC is calling for a combination of tools and inclusive policies to ensure that tenants and landlords are supported in a balanced manner, to overcome the split incentives to energy retrofits. This means one-stop-shops that include the rented sector and multi-units’ specificities, Minimum Energy Performance Standards designed accordingly, tailor-made financial instruments and protective local housing market regulation (i.e. licensing).
Moving forward, STEP will be focusing on national advocacy for energy efficiency measures in Member States, to highlight the importance of energy efficiency going hand-in-hand with the transition to renewables. For more information, sign up to the STEP newsletter or visit www.stepenergy.eu