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The Energy Poverty Crisis Requires Fresh Thinking

By Catherine Butler, author of Energy Poverty, Practice, and Policy

Energy poverty has long been among the most pressing concerns faced by people around the world. Energy services underpin many of our basic daily needs and are integral in the processes through which wider poverty is perpetuated. Recent increases in the global prices of energy resources combine with many years of austerity and depressed wages to deepen the energy poverty crisis with the issues affecting the lives of many more people than ever before. Never has it been more important to understand the dynamics of energy poverty and re-examine our ways of understanding the issues.  

Energy access and affordability are recognised as global goals with dedicated policies and strategies in many international and national contexts. However, often the challenges of energy poverty can be narrowly framed obscuring the importance of multiple forms of energy use and interconnections between policy areas. Taking the UK as an example, fuel poverty policy focuses primarily on domestic use and heat, advancing solutions that are directed at improving home energy efficiency and providing income support for specific vulnerable groups.

Though this work is undoubtedly an important part of the picture, it does not address the multiple and interconnected forms of energy poverty experienced by people in their everyday lives, extending across to transport poverty and a diverse array of domestic uses, including heat and cooling, but also wider energy services, such as those associated with digital technologies. Nor does it bring to light the ways that multiple areas of policy outside of the fuel poverty remit combine to constitute the conditions for its emergence. For example, the current energy price crisis has little to do with levels of domestic of energy efficiency and the requirements for energy use as part of daily life emerge from multiple areas of policy that combine to shape what is needed to live well day-to-day.   

In my recent open access book, I focus on questions about the ways that energy poverty is experienced and shaped by policy within daily life. I look at the ways that uses of energy across multiple areas of life from transport to homes are made increasingly central to basic needs, such as securing income, health, and education. This brings to light the ways that energy use has become absolutely essential to a decent standard of life. More than this though, I open-up a conversation about the ways that requirements for energy use are created and how this is equally important in causing energy poverty as issues of affordability. In the book I shed light on how welfare policy constitutes needs for energy use in multiple ways, from centralisation of physical services to digitalisation, while simultaneously undermining people’s abilities to afford energy with cuts to income and sanctions.

The agenda for action is thus extended far beyond ideas of improving efficiency - so that less energy is required for the same service - towards thinking that focuses on how to reduce the requirements for energy use at all by reflecting on the policies that contribute to creating need. This might seem radical, but it doesn’t have to be. Reducing the requirements for travel through shifts to homeworking have seen many slashing their car travel and associated fuel bills. This could go further with more focus on developing infrastructure and ways of working and living that favour walking over driving, such as changing policies to ones that shift away from centralisation of services toward more distributed models. Offering more options in how to access services without the need for digital technologies. Or rethinking our buildings so that they keep cool and warm without the need for extensive heating and cooling technologies.

These are not only an important part of the rethink required to reduce energy use in line with sustainability goals but would help to reduce energy poverty too. Crucial to this is a seismic shift in thinking away from placing emphasis on individuals to reduce their energy use in contexts where it is increasingly required towards approaches that seek to reshape the requirements for using energy at all. Such a change would seek to enable people to do the things that make lives happy and healthy without the need to pay ever increasing sums to energy companies.

Dr Catherine Butler is Senior Lecturer in Human Geography at University of Exeter. Her research centres around analysis of environmental governance processes with focus on the intersections between policy, politics, and everyday life. She has published extensively on topics including energy transitions in everyday life, behavioural change and social practice, wellbeing impacts of environmental change processes, and governance of climate adaptation. This book arises out of her four-year EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) funded project.