Energy poverty is said to affect up to 10% of Ireland’s population, or broken down, over 450,000 people throughout every county on the island. The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources has found that a home lacking in energy efficiency can cost the average family over €4,000 a year to heat. unfortunately, this is an amount that many, including vulnerable sectors of society, cannot afford to pay. The end result are cold homes, the potential for health problems, a financial burden on those affected and unnecessary carbon emissions.
The DCENR has recently released a revised Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty (2016-2019). This strategy helps to outline Ireland’s commitment to improving living standards, reducing the incidence of energy poverty (and in return income poverty) and transitioning Ireland to a low-carbon society.
In this post on the KORE Blog will explore this new strategy and what it means to those facing or already experiencing energy poverty.
The basics of energy poverty
Energy poverty is a serious issue that affects families across the country and the EU. In fact, the European Commission estimates that energy poverty may affect up to 54 million people in the EU alone, or around 11% of the population. Most cases of energy poverty occur when families cannot afford the cost of the utilities required to heat their homes. The energy could be in the form of heating oil, electricity, natural gas or a combination. Energy poverty can be caused by a number of factors, including
- The increasing cost of energy (electricity, oil, natural gas etc.)
- Low household income (unemployment, low-paying jobs, high costs of living)
- Energy inefficient homes (buildings lacking proper insulation, windows and doors, air tightness, ventilation, inefficient heating systems etc.)
- Lack of access to the required energy sources
People affected by energy poverty do not have a choice in the matter. The cost of heating may be too high and unaffordable, meaning families must go through the winter months without adequate heating. This can be detrimental to the health of the occupants and the structure itself, leading to damp, mould growth and rot.
Cold and unhealthy homes lead to the poor health of its occupants. Those unable to heat their homes are at a higher risk for respiratory illness, cardiovascular illness, high blood pressure and even a deterioration of his or her mental health. Those exposed to fuel poverty have a greater risk of death during cold weather, especially children and the elderly. It may also lead to social isolation and an increase in accidents around the home.
The Institute of Public Health in Ireland has found that Ireland and Northern Ireland has a higher incidence of winter mortality than that of the rest of Europe. Up to 70% of these reported deaths occur within the “poorest socio-economic groups”.
What’s being done to help combat energy poverty?
We’re lucky enough to live in a country that understands the challenges and implications of fuel poverty and is actively looking for ways to reduce its occurrence. While this has been ongoing for a number of years, and progress has been made, there is more that can be done. The DCENR’s revised Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty introduces new programmes aimed at groups that may have been overlooked or were simply not included in previous initiatives.
1. Keeping Ireland’s population healthy
A joint initiative between DCENR, SEAI, Department of Health and the HSE will introduce a new pilot programme beginning in March of 2016. This new initiative will assist those with medical conditions that are associated with “low thermal efficiency housing”. In other words, this programme is aimed at those with cold homes and a medical condition that can be caused or affected by these living conditions. Applicants will be referred to the Scheme directly through his or her healthcare provider if they meet the following requirements:
- A family member or someone living in the house is in receipt of Fuel Allowance
- There is someone in the home 55 years of age or older
- The house is within the Community Healthcare Organisation Area
- They have a medical condition associated with low thermal efficiency housing (poor insulation, for example)
- The house is either owner-occupied or classified as social housing
While the Scheme will be available to applicants that meet the above requirements, priority access will be given to those that are in receipt or on the waiting listing for a home care package, or to someone who has recently, or is waiting to be discharged from a hospital.
Funding in the amount of €4m has been allocated to the Scheme in 2016. This funding will be used towards the deep retrofit of eligible homes, including heating, insulation and ventilation. Exact measures will be determined by SEAI during a site survey of each home. Like the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme, eligible homes will be retrofit at no cost to the homeowner. In addition, reassessments will be conducted at the 6 month and 2 year mark. Both the works carried out in each home and the health of the occupants will be reassessed. This will help to determine the efficiency and the effectiveness of the programme.
An independent research programme is expected to run at the same time, with the pilot expected to continue for three years and at a cost of €20m. A full overview of this new pilot programme can be found in the DCENR’s strategy (link in Resources).
2. Changes to the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme
The Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme has provided eligible homeowners with cavity wall insulation, attic insulation, pipe insulation, cold and hot water tank jackets, ventilation, draught proofing, Building Energy Ratings and other energy efficiency measures at no cost over the course of several years. At the end of 2015, 119,705 homes had availed of the free measures at a cost of €152m, or an average of €2,280 per home. Currently, the Scheme is only available to owner-occupied homes built before 2006. In addition, the applicant must be in receipt of Fuel Allowance, Jobseekers Allowance for more than 6 months with a child under the age of 7 or Family Income Supplement.
Effective immediately, those in receipt of the One-Parent Family Payment or Jobseekers Transition Payment are now eligible to avail of the Better Energy Warmer Homes Scheme. The home must be owner-occupied and built before 2006. While no other changes are expected in the immediate future, the eligibility requirements and continuously assessed and updated when necessary.
Those who own a home built before 2006 and are in receipt of one of the above benefits can apply by visiting www.warmerhomes.ie.
3. Changes to the Better Energy Communities Scheme
SEAI’s Better Energy Communities Scheme has provided funding and grants to 260 communities totaling over 12,000 homes to date. The majority of the homes that received upgrades were in energy poverty. The Scheme, however, may not have funded smaller projects worth less than €50,000.
In 2016, the Better Energy Communities Scheme will allow for projects under €50,000 with the creation of a new category. SEAI will also provide technical guidance to applicants that may not have been able to avail of the funding in the past. The new category for smaller projects will allow for the Scheme to continue to benefit communities at a more local level.
4. Combating energy poverty in rented and social housing
While there have been grants available to landlords in previous years, the rental sector generally does not receive the same financial support for energy upgrades as those in owner-occupied homes. The same can be said for those facing energy poverty in social housing. The strategy will address the rental sector by:
- Creating a roadmap through public consultation, including setting minimum energy efficiency standards for rental housing after 2020
- Discuss the possibility of providing additional funding and grants for landlords to upgrade the energy efficiency of their rented homes as part of the new roadmap
- Provide financial assistance to landlords and approved housing bodies who participate in the Housing Assistance Payment
- Continuing to invest in the energy efficiency of Ireland’s social housing stock
There’s always more we can do
Unfortunately, we can’t just eradicate fuel poverty over night. While no one should have to choose between buying food or heating their home, it is a daily reality for some. While the new initiatives do reach more people than in previous years, some groups are still finding it difficult to qualify for grants and incentives that are available to homeowners. One group in particular are those in rental accommodations.
The DCENR report highlighted that as of the 2011 census, over 29pc of dwellings in Ireland are rented. This percentage has likely risen as it has become more difficult to purchase a home, partly due to the fact that building stock just doesn’t exist and financial barriers make it unlikely for others to afford. When up to 1 in 5 households live in rented accommodations, a high percentage of the population is literally being left out in the cold.
The real problem with rental accommodation and social housing is the lack of energy efficiency. Many rental homes lack proper insulation, draught proofing and ventilation, coupled with outdated and inefficient heating systems. Due partly to the fact that tenants do not have the right to upgrade these measures in rented homes, many cannot afford to and do not have access to the financing, grants and incentives as those in owned homes. The DCENR strategy found that families in rented homes were “twice as likely to live in a home E, F or G rated on the Building Energy Rating (BER) scale”. To put this into perspective, a 100m2, 3 bedroom semi-detached home would have the following annual fuel cost at these ratings (as published by SEAI):
E1: €2,300, E2: €2,600, F: €3,200, G: €4,000.
The same house at an A3 rating (the average for homes built after 2012) would come in at a fraction of the cost at €470. An A2 and A1 rating would see a further reduction to €380 and €190 respectively. Simply building energy efficient homes and continuing to upgrade our existing housing stock is one of the best ways to reduce spend on energy for the average homeowner. Offering incentives to landlords (such as the HAP Scheme and tax credits) and setting minimum Building Energy Ratings can also help to reduce the impact of fuel poverty on tenants and occupants of rental properties.
Those affected by energy poverty can also take advantage of offers, incentives and lower energy prices by switching energy providers. It is always advisable to shop around for the lowest rates on and consistent basis while taking advantage of energy efficiency incentives that may be designed to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Prepaid energy meters can also help those on limited incomes control spend on monthly energy bills, although rates and standing charges may be higher when compared to a postpaid account. Several resources are available to consumers that are designed to compare tariffs and current incentives. Suppliers may offer programmable and learning thermostats as an incentive to switch. Smart thermostats can help reduce energy usage related to heating from 10 to 12pc, paying for themselves in as little as two years (based on statistics published on the Nest Learning Thermostat website).
The future of energy efficiency
We’re lucky to be living in a time where energy efficiency is in the spotlight. Building techniques based on the Passive House Standard, EnerPHit, net-zero and net-positive energy homes, to name a few, along with updated building regulations will continue to aid in the decrease of energy poverty. Governments throughout the EU are realising the devastating effects of fuel poverty and implementing schemes and incentives to help bring our inefficient building stock up to standard. Companies are investing in innovation; developing new technologies and products that promote energy efficiency, renewable energy sources and limit our dependence on energy imports.
The Department of Communication, Energy & Natural Resources newly released Strategy to Combat Energy Poverty (2016-2019) can be read in full by visiting the DCENR website.
What do you think of the new strategy? Does it go far enough in decreasing the occurrence of energy poverty in Ireland? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.