Energy Poverty: bridging the social-sustainability gap

16 November 2022 - Published by Deirdre Buist
Energy Poverty. For some countries in the EU this is a completely new phenomena, but this year it has become a pertinent topic, severely impacting the welfare of many citizens across Europe. Stronghouse partners and invitees came together online on 11th November to discuss experiences and exchange knowledge on the subject of Energy Poverty Personas. How can we bridge the gap between social welfare and sustainability goals to provide effective support, with consideration for inclusive, individual and communal outcomes? Trust is the key.

Expert speaker Dr. Jurenne Hooi  - with a wealth of experience in multiple areas of the Public Health sector in the  Amsterdam  area, amongst others -  opened the session with some eye-opening facts about the physical and psychological effects of poverty on individuals, families and whole communities. A deeper understanding of the impact of chronic poverty and the resulting social challenges people face could help the Stronghouse approach to personas and their energy journey.

In general, poverty means a low economic status and higher health risks. The associated stress negatively impacts family welfare and can result in higher  crime rates, domestic violence and intergenerational social challenges.

Defining energy poverty

Focusing on energy poverty, Jurenne said: “In the Netherlands, the definition of energy poverty is that more than 30% of income goes to energy bills.  That is now  the case for 1 in 5 families. This situation is exasperated by bad housing and, despite great efforts to  accelerate interventions and renovations in poorer areas, we predict there will be  an explosive increase in debts amongst this most vulnerable group by next year. A  general distrust of institutions,  negative experiences with authorities, racial and cultural differences, shame and sense of personal pride are all factors to consider.

Recognizable challenges

Jurenne’s presentation triggered some very interactive discussion, with participants keen to learn  and share their experiences with this susceptible group. Many  recognize the challenges mentioned.

In Drenthe, for example, it is difficult to reach the socially weaker, often more illiterate homeowners – and this particular target group is not the norm. Some relatively small measures suggested by participants to  alleviate some of the issues faced: 

  • Use trusted social workers from inside the community, tackling poverty at an early stage.
  • Invest in asset-based community development, using talents/skills from the community to effectively strengthen the neighbourhood.
  • Build resilient, authentic communities, talking with and not about the citizens.

The EU Energy Poverty Hub

In 2020  more than 8% of the EU population were unable to heat their homes sufficiently. That’s 35 million citizens! In the North Sea Region,  Sweden has the lowest  instance and Belgium the highest, according to Eurostat statistics presented by  Project Coordinator Hein Braaksma. Hein also shared an interesting overview from the EU Energy Poverty Advisory Hub which lists best practices in our various countries. This leading EU initiative is run by the European Commission and  is a collaborative network of stakeholders aiming to eradicate energy poverty and accelerate the just energy transition of European local governments.

Personas, frustrations & motivations

During a previous Stronghouse workshop on energy poverty in July 2021, partners mentioned how their initial approach to those confronted with this issue is often through the social worker and then the energy advisors.  The consortium has  developed a number of personas to differentiate target groups and improve an understanding of the end user in order to base design decisions on this. Each persona has different motivations and frustrations. A number of partners, including  the Flemish City of Roeselare and IGEMO have a particular focus on homeowners, neighbourhoods and energy poverty. They've developed a number of personas to support targeted communication efforts, including:

  • Maarten, single Dad with limited time and budget, not eligible for many social subsidies.
  • Rosa, stressed young single, emergency property buyer, owner of house with multiple  overdue maintenance issues.

Roeselare's approach 

Ine Lobelle, representing Roeselare, presented the approach now being taken in Roeselare and shared  inspirational illustrations of their efforts to engage and motivate homeowners, using a broad mix of communication and financial support tools, such as: 

  • Subsidies of up to 50% of renovation costs for low income households
  • Potential pre-financing by the City of Roeselare
  • Subsidies for landlord
  • Cooperation with social welfare for emergency buyers
  • Interest-free loans with deferred payment
  • Funds for renovation coaching.

Experimentation & discovery

Ine presented some very impressive examples of  the City’s efforts to further engage with lower income households. “We organized a Breakfast Workshop on Energy Poverty, targeting this particular group with a free meal, an experienced speaker on the subject of poverty and energy, and introducing the main actors.  We announced the event using general forms of communication as well as through social welfare channels and trusted members of the community. Only half of those who subscribed showed up. So, despite all our efforts we’re not yet getting the results hoped for. But we continue to experiment with different approaches and are still discovering what works best.”



The City of Roeslare experiment with different approaches: including a breakfast workshop on Energy Poverty. 

Connect, cooperate, trust

Roeselare’s media mix includes both traditional, printed and online communication, directly targeting particular stakeholder groups and using the available city data. Connecting with the public also occurs through social organizations, a demonstration house in the neighbourhood (with a BBQ to attract more interest), multicultural ambassadors, joining in neighbourhood events, door-to-door campaigning (with Arab speaking volunteers) and developing trust. The latter is key to approaching those with social struggles as is  cooperation between different social/religious/communal organizations and projects.

No one-size-fits-all 

These inspiringcases from Roeselare were greatly admired by other Stronghouse partners as discussions continued and more practices were exchanged. In Drenthe, for example, the lowest income groups are now entitled to free wall insulation to the value of 2500 euros as part of the Insulation Offensive. An invited participant from the Municipality of Borger-Odoorn pointed out that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Circumstances are different in each area but a number of approaches have proved effective:

  • Use ‘local heroes’, energy coaches and key residents in the neighbourhood.
  • Bring people together in informal atmosphere with food and drink – again gaining trust.
  • Share some quick fixes (draught exclusion, radiator foil etc).
  •  Speak the language of the target group - interracial connection is important.

Social workers & energy coaches

Some very relevant experience was shared regarding the role of volunteer energy coaches and the challenges they face in relation to energy poverty. Energy coaches encounter a lot of social problems when approaching people in poorer areas, causing extra stress. Poverty is multi-faceted and using a mixed approach is advisable, with social workers playing an important role. Poverty, not just energy poverty is the real problem. Working together is key.

In conclusion 

As Hein Braaksma concluded at the end of this latest transnational thematic workshop: “By sharing our experiences and examples, we’ve now gained more insight. When supporting those facing energy poverty,  we need to go in with more than technical advice. Trust is crucial, as well as a sensitivity to cultural and racial differences. While quick fixes may help for heating, financial support is also a key aspect. Roeselare’s demo house – in the middle of the neighbourhood – could be a low threshold way of making real contact. Working with Arab-speakers and offering upfront financing, stands out as a successful  example. Clearly, it is extra challenging for those from a migration background, whereby  language and cultural differences make it more difficult to engage. Trust, understanding concerns and challenges, and an open eye for related issues, are  not just essential when tackling energy poverty, they are central when offering all homeowner’ support and at the heart of the Stronghouse Customer Journey.”

Quote of the day: “We don’t need to do different things but we need to do things differently.”

Marcel Endendijk, gemeente Borger-Odoorn