Fuel poverty: 10 years later, a concept still vague


The notion of “energy poverty” is celebrating its tenth anniversary. What it refers to is of course older, but the expression was popularized in France by its inclusion in the law in 2010.

The news of the last two years has recalled the importance it occupies in the public space, with the end of the basic necessity tariff for electricity (TPN) and the special solidarity tariff for gas (TSS), two mechanisms that have been replaced by the energy check in 2018. Following the movement of yellow vests in the fall, the government decided to expand the device.

In February 2020, the hashtag #LesMalChauffés was launched by USAinformations as part of an operation. And at the same time, the winter break is extended by prescription as part of the management of the health crisis due to Covid-19.

However, qualifying and quantifying this phenomenon is not as obvious as it seems. Translated from the English "fuel poverty", fuel poverty is officially defined in France in the law Grenelle II of July 12, 2010 as follows :

“Is in a situation of fuel poverty […] a person who experiences particular difficulties in their home in obtaining the supply of energy necessary to satisfy their basic needs due to the inadequacy of their resources or their living conditions. 'habitat. »

This definition thus brings together social issues and ecological issues, but does not specify what “basic needs” cover.

However, private or public actions around the management of the phenomenon (whether in terms of poverty, payment difficulties or building renovation) predate this inclusion in the law. But this opens a period of both questions on the tools available to qualify and quantify this phenomenon and questions about the possibility of responding to it within the framework of an energy transition policy.

A phenomenon difficult to measure

In 2011, the National Observatory of Energy Poverty (ONPE) was created, to which it is entrusted with triple duty : observe energy poverty and analyze the associated public policies, contribute to the animation of the debate on energy poverty, promote and disseminate the work on the phenomenon. It is made up of public and private organizations, and thus brings together state actors from different fields, actors from the energy and housing market, organizations from the SSE world, etc.

It publishes an energy poverty dashboard twice a year in order to update the data available on the phenomenon and the indicators... and this is precisely where the things get more complex.

Measuring fuel poverty, yes, but with what data and from what indicators? This is one of the first questions the ONPE had to answer... and the question still remains.

Jérôme Vignon, president of the National Observatory of Poverty and Social Exclusion, pointed this out as soon as the publication of the first ONPE report in 2014 :

“A priori, nothing seems simpler than measuring “fuel poverty”. Do we not also have a robust indicator, the rate of energy effort? […] However, if we really take the many real situations of fuel poverty seriously, such an approximation is insufficient, even counterproductive. It will make inhabitants who don't really care about their bills look like precarious and will neglect others whose effort is reduced only at the cost of a self-restriction that threatens their well-being. »

20% fuel poverty, a stable figure

Fuel poverty is currently measured by combining three indicators :

  • The energy effort rate: this calculates the level of energy expenditure for housing on all of a household's expenditure and positions the result in relation to a threshold of 8%.
  • The low income high expenditure indicator, broken down by consumption unit or by square meter: it relates energy expenditure to household income.
  • The cold indicator: it studies the cold felt by a household based on different criteria.

These indicators are studied on the first three deciles of the standard of living of the population.

The data used come from the National Housing Surveys (ENL), the last edition of which dates from 2013 (a 2020 ENL is in progress), from the results of updating these ENLs based on statistical models, and occasionally from other official statistics surveys. Given the multidimensional nature of fuel poverty, other data is also retained: administrative files, customer files, field data, etc.

By combining the three indicators with the 2013 ENL, the ONPE established this number of households at 5,1 million, that is to say 12 million French people, or one person in five.

With regard to Energy poverty dashboard published by the ONPE for the 1st half of 2020, there is a stability in the number of households in energy poverty, a stability that has existed for several years: 11,7% for the energy effort rate alone, i.e. 3,4 million households (i.e. 6,7 million people).

Paradoxical energy data

This stability hides contrasting data. Thus, the annual amount of energy expenditure per household, for housing and for fuel, increased from €2491 in 2009 to €3121 in 2018 while, at the same time, the energy consumption of the residential stock between these two years went from 203,9 kWh per m2 to 171,3 kWh per m2.

Faced with these data, those from "the counter" invite us to question the institutional context in which the request is carried out. On one side, the number of supplier interventions for unpaid bills increased from 623 in 599 to 2014 in 671 but on the other hand the number of "Living better" files submitted to Anah to benefit from renovation aid increased from 546 in 2019 to 62 in 510…

But who are we actually talking about? In the indicators used, the so-called "fuel poor" person is first and foremost a "household", whether or not it is qualified as "(very) modest" or "poor" with regard to its resource conditions.

In the organizations involved in taking charge of the "fight against fuel poverty", the person in fuel poverty is first and foremost a client, beneficiary, a user, a citizen, a citizen, a inhabitant (sometimes owner, sometimes tenant, or even lessor). At this level, ""energy poverty" is perhaps more a category of public action than a characteristic identifying a person or that a person can identify with. This helps to create a shift between what the indicators reflect and what the organizations “on the ground” take charge of.

Support that questions

From there to conclude that we are no more advanced today than ten years ago, certainly not. Knowledge of fuel poverty has grown and legislation incorporates it alongside issues sociales et ecological.

However, it still questions the relevance of collective action, publique ou private, set up to support it. the energy voucher, for example, is allocated not according to the level of energy expenditure of a household, a situation of unpaid energy or the characteristics of its dwelling, but based on the number of shares and tax income.

The last decade has above all been the scene of multiple forms of coordination between actors with various statuses and missions. The actions of SA, SARL, associations, mutuals, foundations, cooperatives, independent public authorities, public establishments are thus articulated... More than its reality, it is perhaps the appearance of new actors and the multiplication of texts, standards and devices that make the concept of fuel poverty so successful and contribute to creating its paradoxes.

Adele Sebert, PhD student in economics, University of Lille

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.


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