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10th Jul 2020

EU tries to measure 'energy poverty' - without defining it

  • EU commissioner Maros Sefcovic (2nd from right): 'we do not attempt to create a universal definition of energy poverty' (Photo: European Commission)

The European Commission launched a website on Monday (29 January) aimed at providing insights into the issue of energy poverty - but without defining what 'energy poverty' means.

"The launch of the Energy Poverty Observatory marks an important milestone in our struggle for a more just, solidarity, and inclusive Europe," said EU commissioner for Energy Union, Maros Sefcovic in Brussels.

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He went on to say that two out of three EU member states do not define or measure energy poverty, and that the context in which energy poverty occurred varied between countries.

"That is why we do not attempt to create a universal definition of energy poverty. We rather opted for a description of the term," said Sefcovic.

"This will allow us to continue working together, addressing energy poverty across borders and learn from each other's experience – based on a common understanding that we all share," he added.

That description, on the observatory website, reads, "Energy poor households experience inadequate levels of these essential energy services, due to a combination of high energy expenditure, low household incomes, inefficient buildings and appliances, and specific household energy needs."

But this course of action raises questions: if there is no common European definition of energy poverty, then what use is analysing it at an EU level?

Undefined since 2008

The European Parliament has been asking for an EU-wide definition for at least a decade.

On 19 June 2008, MEPs adopted a text calling on the commission "to define the notion of energy poverty".

Almost ten years later, several MEPs repeated that request.

"We have to define once and for all, what energy poverty means across our member states," said British centre-left MEP Theresa Griffin.

"How can you solve a problem if you don't even agree on what is the problem?" added Luxembourgish Greens MEP Claude Turmes.

Bulgaria's deputy energy minister Zhecho Stankov – present at the launch because his country holds the rotating six-month EU presidency – also said a common definition was needed.

But the team behind the Energy Poverty Observatory, presenting their website on Monday after a year of preparation, said that the issue was complex.

"It was not possible also for us to find one single indicator to measure throughout Europe with a 'one size fits all' approach," said Johannes Thema, project coordinator.

"What we decided in the end was opting to cover four indicators that intend to measure some dimensions of energy poverty," he added.

These included how often respondents to surveys have said that in the past year their household had been unable to pay utility bills on time.

This website asked whether it was useful to compare these indicators if there was no common understanding of what energy poverty is.

"It is a very valid question, and one that we asked ourselves," said Anna Colucci, head of unit retail markets at the commission, who chaired one of the presentations on Monday.

She noted that in a recently proposed piece of EU legislation, member states would be required to define what energy poverty meant.

"So far we are in a negotiation process and we will see. But in parallel to that we wanted the observatory to already start working," Colucci said.

The legislative file is being negotiated by representatives of the commission, the parliament, and the national governments.

The commission initially proposed that member states laid down "national objectives with regards to energy poverty, including the number of households in energy poverty".

MEPs added another requirement. They want the commission to "adopt a common methodology for member states to define energy poverty".

EU to tackle 'energy poverty'

The Commission wants to focus on "vulnerable consumers" but concedes that there will be differences in needs across the bloc.

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