This time I would like to cover a very different aspect of energy and its usage in everyday life. So far there is no apparent lack of energy, technically speaking. Energy is available in abundance, and the only restriction to using it is the price we are asked to pay for it. Thus big users will eventually find themselves paying a huge bill. But it´s not only big consumers who might face a hefty burden from their energy bill. More and more people are using a substantial amount of their available income in order to buy the energy they need. In particular, this is true for heating which is also one of the biggest parts of private energy consumption.
The UK statistical office is collecting data on fuel poverty. The term refers essentially to energy needs for heating purposes and the relative amount of household income people have to spend in order to “maintain a satisfactory heating regime”, i.e. 21 °C in the main living area and 18 °C for other rooms. In particular, people are considered to suffer from fuel poverty if they have to spend more than 10% of the household income on fuel for heating.
The figure below gives a sketch of the situation in the recent past (2003 and 2009).
The first observation we make is that the number of fuel poor households has apparently dramatically increased between 2003 and 2009. During that period the number of households concerned has, on average, more than doubled. Thus, fuel poverty in the above sense is definitely increasing and showing a severe social impact. Energy is becoming a scarce and to some extent even luxurious commodity.
Another observation is that specific groups are particularly hit by this phenomenon. People without dependent children are more likely to suffer from fuel poverty than those having kids. Moreover, persons older than 60 years are also facing a greater risk of getting fuel poor. The same is true for single persons when compared to couples.
The causes for this are manifold. Energy prices are on the rise. They climb faster than the average income, especially for retired people. Another factor is certainly the economic crisis which hit a number of European countries in 2008. So far we are still far from a sustainable recovery. Therefore, we may well assume that the situation has aggravated in the meantime.
Yet another factor coming into play is related to economic circumstances: Many elderly people may not be able to afford refurbishing their houses such that they consume less energy, especially for heating. Renovating old houses is a costly undertaking which may simply go beyond many people´s financial capabilities.
Fuel poverty is a critical issue not only in the UK. Also other countries like Germany encounter the same problem. However, most of those countries do not collect the respective statistical data as is the case in the UK. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to assess the severity of fuel poverty for other countries. Taking into account that energy is of critical importance to the functioning of our societies, it would be highly desirable to collect those data in order to tackle the problem as soon as possible.