What is energy poverty?
There is currently no unified definition of energy poverty across Europe or even within the EU.
According to the Energy Poverty Handbook, “Energy Poverty is commonly understood to be when a person or household is not able to heat or fuel their home to an acceptable standard at an affordable cost. In reality, it covers a very wide set of essential activities. It can occur if people cannot afford to heat their homes adequately, but also to cool them in hot climates. It may mean they cannot afford to cook hot meals, or have reliable hot water for baths and washing clothes or run essential domestic appliances (washing machines, irons, televisions, computers, etc.).”
Other countries define it in much simpler terms often referring solely to the inability to adequately heat their homes or being unable to make utility payments. In Scotland, Wales and North Ireland, it is defined as a situation where a household is forced to spend more than 10% of its income in order to “maintain a satisfactory heating regime.”
While the term energy poverty is mentioned in North Macedonia’s Strategy for Energy Development it fails to actually define it and any actions put in place by past and present governments have focused on what are referred to as “vulnerable energy consumers”.
Energy poverty in North Macedonia
North Macedonia’s high poverty and unemployment rates are large contributors to the energy poverty problem. A staggering 41.1% of the population are at risk of poverty or social exclusion, almost double the EU average of 21.8%. Current figures show that 16.2% of the country is unemployed compared to the EU average of 6.7%. Although the unemployment rate has declined significantly over the years, the chances are that the figures can be quite misleading due to the fact that there hasn’t been a census in the country since 2002. Without a true picture of the population, there is no way of knowing what the impact of fewer younger people entering the workforce and the large number of people emigrating is having on the unemployment rate. Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic will no doubt hit the country’s economy hard.
Being unable to heat living spaces is one of the main energy poverty issues in North Macedonia. In 2014, more than 40,000 households had problems paying their electricity bills and the main gas distributor noted a 30% decrease in customers between 2007 and 2014 due to rising prices. These customers, and the large part of the population who are not connected to the country’s central heating network, have no choice but to switch to other forms of heating such as solid fuel stoves which don’t warm adequately and create air pollution which has significant health implications. An estimated 35% of households struggle to keep up with energy bill payments.
Population unable to keep home adequately warm by poverty status,2018 (Eurostat)
In 2018, nearly 25% of Macedonians reported not being able to keep their homes adequately warm compared to the EU average of 7.3%. Only Bulgaria and Lithuania reported worse situations.
Circulatory and respiratory diseases are two of the biggest killers in North Macedonia. In 2013, they accounted for 60% of all deaths in the country. 11,767 people lost their lives due to diseases which are highly related to energy poverty and air pollution. This could also offer one explanation of why North Macedonia currently has the 15th highest number of deaths per million in Europe due to COVID 19; a viral respiratory illness.
The state of many of the country’s buildings is another contributing factor to energy poverty. Around 85% were constructed between 1950 and 1990 at a time when there were no energy efficiency laws or measures. The state of these buildings makes it harder to keep them well insulated and essentially liveable. Research found 15.3% of households with leaking roofs, damp walls, floors and foundation and rot in window frames or floors. 4.5% of respondents felt that their houses were too dark.
What is being done?
Moral obligation to tackle what is clearly a massive problem aside, North Macedonia is obliged to define and implement measures to protect people vulnerable to energy poverty as a contracting party of the Energy Community. As a candidate for EU accession, it would also need to abide by the recently implemented regulation on Governance of the Energy Union and Climate Action.
The Strategy for Energy Development and the country’s Energy Law gives priority to the “reduction of energy poverty and protection of vulnerable consumers”. The strategy proposes the adoption of a programme for vulnerable consumers to ensure their safe and secure supply of energy. The programme for the protection of vulnerable consumers was launched at the beginning of 2020.
To benefit from the programme, one must be considered to be a “vulnerable energy consumer” and, depending on your situation, a “vulnerable electricity consumer” or a “vulnerable gas consumer”. The programme outlines a number of very specific and rigid boxes one has to tick in order to obtain these benefits. A vulnerable energy consumer must live in a household currently registered for financial aid and being in a “social risk” category which they define as motherhood, illness, old age, injury or disability. Vulnerable electricity or gas consumers need to fall into this category as well as a number of other prerequisites such as obtaining your electricity or gas from specific suppliers, caps on your annual consumption and the method in which your electricity usage is measured.
The benefits that await the lucky few who qualify for them include the exemption of fees related to connection or re-connection to the grid, free inspection of potentially faulty metres or being given priority when faults or defects need fixing. As a vulnerable consumer, suppliers are not allowed to disconnect you for missed payments in December, January or February and, if you miss any outside of that time frame, they would need to wait 60 days from your missed payment date to do so and provide you with a written notification 40 days prior. There is also the “possibility” of deferred payment or debt restructuring if you’re lucky.
11 million MKD (€178,654.90) have been set aside from the 2020 budget to fund this programme. If we were to take the 25% of the population identified by the Energy Community as being vulnerable (although this only takes the inability to adequately heat their homes into account), this means that a total of 21.55 MKD (or €0.35c) have been allocated per person living in energy poverty in North Macedonia.
The programme will give the few people who qualify for it a number of “benefits” that will likely do nothing to alleviate them from energy poverty while most likely, leaving out a large chunk of the rest of the vulnerable population. There is also no mention of obtaining a clearer picture of the full extent of the problem. Of course, without a census, it will be difficult to do this either way.
People living with the reality of energy poverty in North Macedonia need a lot more than this. The coalition Right to Energy’s list of demands encompasses many of the necessary steps that need to be taken and should be used as a roadmap across the board.
A ban of disconnections, to effectively ensure the right to energy;
The supply of a minimum amount of energy for all;
A massive renovation programme across the EU, to provide decent, efficient housing for all;
The targeting of the most vulnerable in these renovation efforts;
Recognition of the role of community energy in alleviating energy poverty;
Support for community energy projects fighting energy poverty;
A European definition of energy poverty, to understand and monitor the issue at EU-level.
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Author: JD Farrugia
JD has been working in project and campaign management roles since 2010, mostly within civil society but also in the private sphere, as well as the arts and culture sector. Some of these roles include: directing a CSO focused on sustainable fisheries, setting up and coordinating civil society programmes, and coordinating the programme of a community theatre. JD has an M.Sc in Environmental Management & Planning and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, both from the University of Malta. He is currently involved in various projects related to environmental causes as well as artistic projects in Malta, North Macedonia and on a European level.