Tag Archives: Energy

Collectivities matter: The ‘hidden’ geographies of urban energy deprivation

Professor Stefan Bouzarovski, Professor of Geography and Director of the Centre for Urban Resilience and Energy, University of Manchester, writes about his research based on his on-going work on energy vulnerability and urban transitions  …

In the UK, the onset of winter regularly stokes public concerns about the social impacts of rising energy prices. Reports about the predicament of ‘fuel poverty’ – often described as a condition where households are unable to achieve adequate levels of energy services in the home – abound in the media and political debates. The extent to which the government needs to intervene in the market so as to lower energy prices has become a major talking point, and a bone of contention among political parties, utilities, and the government. Similar dynamics can be observed in other European countries – high electricity prices, for instance, recently became a key electoral issue in Germany; and widespread popular unrest over austerity and energy bills was one of the main reasons why the Bulgarian government was forced to resign in 2012.

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

Storage of fuelwood for heating in an apartment building. Kyustendil, Bulgaria. Photo by Stefan Bouzarovski

The relationship between energy affordability and poverty is complex and contingent, involving multiple factors related to the energy efficiency of the home, everyday fuel consumption practices, residential occupancy patterns, as well as broader dynamics of power and recognition (Bouzarovski 2013). Yet many public discussions and media discourses collapse the issue to a limited set of state policies at the energy price-utility regulation nexus. The archetypal image that accompanies this reductionism is one of a pensioner sitting in front of a poorly functioning gas fire or electric heater. This is often contrasted with representations of wind farms or solar panels, whose allegedly high costs are pushing increasing numbers of people into fuel poverty.

In part, the prominence of pensioners and older people in media discourses on fuel poverty can be attributed to the political agency of this group, and the severe fuel-related hardship that many of its members face – a reality uncovered by a significant body of academic research (Wright 2004). However, the prioritization of older people over other groups in society has led to the marginalization of other households and individuals who are vulnerable due to their demographic, economic or residential circumstances. Further exacerbating the situation is the normative emphasis on private home tenure in many fuel poverty amelioration policies. The requirements of the UK’s Green Deal, for example, are intimately tied with property ownership, which means that this policy is generally outside the reach of households in the leasehold, private rented or social housing sectors. The main French fuel poverty policy (Habiter mieux) has likewise chosen to focus on homeowners living in rural areas, thus resulting in an approach that favours older people over other groups (Dubois 2012). As a whole, therefore, the current state of affairs confirms the argument made by a number of academics: that how and where fuel poverty is addressed by the strongly depends on the interrelation between dynamics of procedure and recognition (Walker and Day 2012). This is counter to earlier understandings that emphasize the distributional aspect of the issue (Boardman 1991).

The disadvantaged position of private rented and younger or more transient populations within current fuel poverty policy is further exacerbated by the regulatory and pricing mechanisms associated with the ongoing transition to a low-carbon economy. This emergent policy regime entails the re-allocation of environmental externalities away from fiscal systems onto final consumption, accompanied by a broader shift from income redistribution toward environmental taxation. Its consequences are particularly felt by fuel poor households, who may be subjected to, inter alia, increased prices for energy – either because companies indirectly pass the cost of ‘carbon taxes’ to the final bill, or due to direct levies on energy service-paying customers. In many European countries, such processes primarily affect households who use electricity for heating, as this fuel is seen as the best medium for passing on the cost of broader energy and low carbon policies onto the final consumer.

High rates of household electricity use, however, are disproportionately present in cities, as is non-private housing ownership. This means that the emergence of new energy-related forms of deprivation and inequality is inextricably tied to the planning practices and spatial morphologies that define urban areas. But the lack of adequate policy to address such difficulties is supplemented by an almost complete absence of research on the topic. It remains unclear, for example, how the socio-spatial patterns created by the lack of adequate energy services in the home – and the broader inability to access infrastructural networks – map onto existing geographies of segregation. The agency of built forms is of particular importance in this context, as an additional determining factor to conventional poverty-inducing dynamics (such as incomes and prices). Also unclear is the manner in which the background context of ‘austerity urbanism’ is influencing dynamics of domestic energy deprivation, both via the exacerbation and deepening of existing inequalities, and by ‘residualizing’ and moving the responsibility for the delivery of fuel poverty policy away from conventional support structures.

It should also be noted that the city of today is a site of far-reaching demographic and cultural change. This involves new forms of friendship, kinship and community affiliation under the influence of processes such as the ‘second demographic transition’ (de Kaa 1987). How one conceptualizes and practices collectivity in the built environment of city thus becomes paramount; this is both because new forms of inequality are closely linked to communal forms of residence (houses in multiple occupation, apartment buildings), and due to the opportunities for alternative practices of sustainable living offered by innovative joint housing arrangements.

The ‘hidden’ geographies of deprivation that arise at the interface of energy use, collective living and urban formations are one of the main research themes of the newly formed Centre for Urban Energy and Resilience at the University of Manchester. We intend to break new academic and policy ground in addressing the numerous unknowns that exist in this research domain. During the past week, for example, we organized a stakeholder roundtable on energy efficiency, fuel poverty and houses in multiple occupancy in London, and a workshop on energy vulnerability in European cities in Brussels. Watch this space!


Boardman, B. 1991. Fuel Poverty: From Cold Homes to Affordable Warmth. London: Bellhaven.

Bouzarovski, S. 2013. Energy poverty in the European Union: landscapes of vulnerability. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/wene.89/abstract.

Dubois, U. 2012. From targeting to implementation: The role of identification of fuel poor households. Energy Policy 49: 107–115.

De Kaa, D. van. 1987. Europe’s second demographic transition. Population Bulletin 42: 1.

Walker, G. and Day, R. 2012. Fuel poverty as injustice: Integrating distribution, recognition and procedure in the struggle for affordable warmth. Energy Policy 49: 69–75.

Wright, F. 2004. Old and cold: older people and policies failing to address fuel poverty. Social Policy & Administration 38: 488–503.


A peak beyond the seamlessly integrated municipal energy networks in Europe

Ralitsa Hiteva, Research Fellow,SPRU, University of Sussex and PhD student, School of Environment, Education and Development, University of Manchester

Urban spaces in the EU, especially within their municipal forms, where low-carbon transition agendas at multiple scales are abundant have become sought after and crowded policy spaces. Municipalities are perceived as having become stronger units of governance due to their increasing number of managerial roles and EU support, particularly in the shape of transnational municipal networks for climate change and energy policy. In fact, municipalities have seemingly become increasingly good in negotiating responses to various policy agendas, succeeding in integrating and reconciling approaches to energy efficiency improvements, decarbonisation and climate change adaptation and mitigation within the framework of concepts such as Smart Cities and programmes such as BioRegions. Such pioneer municipalities have been hailed as achieving so much, in areas where nation states have struggled (for example in integrating strategic low-carbon transition infrastructure and services such as transportation and energy). In doing so, they are seen as isolated ‘islands’ of low-carbon living, plugged into wider policy and stakeholder networks, whose “lights” are multiplying across the EU, flickering stronger and brighter in patterns spreading beyond and despite national borders.

Although a range of transnational municipal networks work in countries like Bulgaria, where the number of pioneer municipalities could be probably capped at less than 15, the lights might never come on. There are spaces where low-carbon policy tends to whirl around its intended target, without quite getting there. This is a quick peak in one such space in Europe. The interest of Bulgarian municipalities in energy efficiency can be traced to the mid 1990s when in the midst of fiscal and political instability responsibility for public lighting was transferred from the national electricity distribution company to municipalities. In the winter of 1997 fast growing inflation meant that municipalities struggled to keep the lights and heating on for public buildings like schools and hospitals. That’s when 23 municipalities set up a ‘self-help’ municipal network called EcoEnergy whose objective was to develop municipal capacity to increase energy efficiency in public buildings in order to reduce utility costs. Ever since, for the majority of Bulgarian municipalities, energy efficiency at municipal level has been equated with reducing the cost of energy. The membership in the municipal network quickly grew and in 2003 it represented 2/3 of the total population of the country.

Although the municipal network has actively worked for over 15 years at national, regional and international level, and is integrated within a thick web of key transnational networks and programmes such as EnergyCities, Intelligent Energy Europe, ManagEnergy and the Covenant of Mayors, it struggles to develop the energy efficiency agenda of Bulgarian municipalities beyond its utility reduction focus. Although many stakeholders maintain that Bulgarian municipalities are in fact reducing carbon emissions even with their rudimentary energy efficiency projects, the extent to which this is happening needs to be explored further.

In contrast to the Bulgarian agenda of energy efficiency as a means of cutting cost, in most EU countries the energy crisis of the 1970s prompted the interest in improving energy efficiency as a means of reducing energy consumption (i.e. energy conservation). Since then interest in energy efficiency and conservation has been maintained and elevated as the most cost-effective and fastest way to meet (substantial part of the) climate change mitigation targets. Energy saved – ‘negajoules’- compared to no improvements in energy efficiency is considered a key energy source in Europe. Thus, energy efficiency projects and programmes are often implemented under the headings ‘climate action’, ‘carbon neutral’, ‘sustainable energy’ or ‘green’. However, if we look deeper than the glossy new facades of public buildings and the happy endings of the before and after comparisons, we can see that in many cases the energy saving and carbon reduction agendas continue to simply circle around these spaces.

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

Images of buildings before and after retrofitting in Bulgaria in 2010 (Project Obnoven Dom).

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Not all energy efficiency improvements result in a decrease in associated carbon emissions. Calculations of possible carbon dioxide reductions often present a skewed picture of the actual energy savings because they are based on a standardised baseline. The majority of municipal buildings in Bulgaria, such as schools, have been chronically under-heated and under-cooled, with levels of thermal comfort significantly below the EU average of 20C (even below the recommended minimum of16C) since the early 1990s. It is still a common practice for badly insulated buildings to have low annual thermal levels.

When such public buildings are retrofitted the associated carbon reduction is calculated based on a normalised baseline of 20C, rather than the actual which could vary between 11C and 16C. The calculations do not take into account that once the building is retrofitted and heated at the normalised levels it will end up not only not making any actual energy savings, but often will result in more energy being consumed. This illustrates a rebound effect, where some of the energy savings from efficiency improvements are used up in the form of higher energy consumption. In this case energy efficiency improvements serve as a means of achieving higher thermal comfort. Considering that more than 60% of municipal buildings in Bulgaria are in such condition, the gap between projected carbon savings and actual savings will grow with the number of retrofitted buildings if unchecked.

For Bulgarian municipalities implementing energy efficiency measures makes sense only if there are financial gains to be made (i.e. cutting the cost of utilities), while carbon dioxide reduction measures can mean having to choose a more expensive option. In fact, in a string of 11 interviews conducted in Bulgarian in 2011 all interviewed municipalities ranked reduction in carbon dioxide emissions as least important in implementing energy projects. The question then is not only How such spaces could be engaged with the network of pioneer municipalities which exists across Europe, but also To what extent is their context of spatial variations truly understood at EU level?