Whole-Community Approach to Tackling Fuel Poverty

You’d have to be living under a rock not to notice we are in an energy crisis. And while fuel poverty is a perennial problem that rears its head in the winter months and mostly impacts the lowest earners, this year it’s taken on a radically different tone.

The ever-increasing prices of fuel, electricity and gas are hitting everybody, not just the worst-off; and as we’ve already seen, the impact is not only confined with our coldest months.

The reasons for the change in the nature of fuel poverty are the result of a range of factors that have been percolating for some time: the repercussions of the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic which have triggered a rising cost of live; over a decade of austerity and public spending cuts which have steadily eroded incomes and social security in real and relative terms; an energy system based on free market profiteering which holds people hostage to unpredictable price fluctuations; the climate crisis and the dichotomy between a) over-dependence on fossil fuels as our primary source of energy and b) the need to transition away from the use of fossil fuels; geopolitical turmoil most recently manifesting in the war in Ukraine. These have combined to create a fuel poverty situation that is reaching crisis point. Some of these factors may prove to be short-term and discrete. Others are not. For instance, we are in a climate crisis and unless we take immediate and radical measures, it’s not going away. Our energy system operates in the free market and unless we remove it from the free market and make it a publicly-owned commodity, that’s not going to change either. Fuel poverty will only get worse.

Responses to fuel poverty have traditionally been twofold: 1) limited assistance in the winter months in the form of single fuel payments for qualifying low income households; 2) limited assistance all year-round in the form of schemes to help lower income households reduce energy consumption and increase energy efficiency. Response 1 addresses the symptoms of fuel poverty, offering short-term, ad-hoc relief that never takes people out of fuel poverty. Once a household receives its fuel poverty payment and spends it on a fill of oil or an electric or gas top-up, the household is pretty much back to square one. While an emergency fuel poverty scheme might be necessary to help those who find themselves in a one-off fuel crisis, it is most certainly not a lasting solution to fuel poverty. Response 2 offers longer-term and more lasting relief from fuel poverty but in its current form, it has limited reach and outcomes.

To tackle fuel poverty in a way that addresses some of the root causes rather than simply the symptoms, we need a longer-term solution that takes a whole-community approach in which all the energy users in a community (e.g. households, businesses, sports clubs, community centres, churches, businesses, schools, colleges, hospitals, health centres, councils and public buildings) work together to develop a sustainable energy system for the benefit of the community, aiming, as far as possible, to be energy efficient, to use renewable energy, and to adopt smart energy solutions. The whole-community approach, which has been delivered in other places, has the potential to take communities of people out of fuel poverty and transform them into energy prosumers (i.e. both consumers and producers of energy) who have lower energy costs, reduced energy consumption and increased energy efficiency; who have greater control over where and how their energy is sourced; and who can become more independent of the energy market, not to mention fossil fuel free.

In NI, there are organisations who are working to address fuel poverty, for example, the Fuel Poverty Coalition, National Energy Action (NEA), Bryson Energy, Advice NI, The Consumer Council, and NI Community Energy (a community energy co-operative that takes forward community-owned, renewable energy initiatives and energy efficiency services). So, the building blocks to tackle fuel poverty already exist. All we need now is the right solution and the whole-community approach could very well be that solution.