How can we put an End to Energy Poverty?

Posted in: energy efficient

Being poor is a real struggle for many Americans; from childcare costs, to payday loans, the expenses associated with running a home can often seem endless. One of the most significant costs is energy expenses, and the inability for many to afford these has led to widespread energy poverty.

Energy poverty is broadly defined as a household with the inability to meet the necessary energy demands to provide basic levels of comfort. The limit beyond which is considered unaffordable energy is 6% of a household’s total income. Yet, even though energy prices are declining, for many low income households paying less than the limit is completely unattainable.

Even though statistically poorer people have smaller homes and overall spend less on heating; unfortunately they also are more likely to have uninsulated homes and inefficient heating systems causing them to be spending more per square foot of heating than middle to upper-class households.

Access to having a more energy efficient means of heating the home is limited, and the poor, including hard-done-by home owners who want to think about the energy efficiency of their properties and using renewable fuels may not be able to foot the set up costs of these methods, meaning they're stuck to using conventional means of heating without having the ability to optimize their system with a more sustainable approach.

It's much worse for renters who on most occasions do not have the options to decrease their bills through solar panel installation and also may not even have the choice of appliance they are using. Therefore, demonstrating that it is more difficult for lower income households to have the opportunity to cut the heating bills, the same way that richer household can and this is how energy poverty contributes to divisions in society.

This doesn't seem fair at all and is why "energy poverty" is such a fitting term for this phenomenon. It seems upside down that those who have more wealth are further able to save more money by investing in more sustainable energy sources whilst lower incomes struggle to make ends meet.

Lifestyles will also suffer; due to a large proportion of the monthly budget is spent on basic needs, little disposable income is often left for recreational activities and other expenses such as school gear needed for the kids and family vacations. In the most drastic situations, energy poverty can lead to homelessness, and is in fact America's second largest cause of homelessness.

Energy Poverty World Wide

America is not the only country affected by energy poverty; it's a global issue with many people in Africa and south Asia who do not even have access to electricity at all, no mobile phones, no traffic lights; only darkness after sundown with light often provided by kerosene lamps.

Bringing modern life to the rest of the world will be no easy task either, as the global human population grows; the demands for power will be ever increasing and the means to fulfil that demand an ever greater task. That is why there is a big drive for sustainable and renewable energy sources today, especially for personal energy production as the use of fossil fuels as a means of energy generation is becoming more limited and expensive, not to mention harmful to our environment.

When it comes to heating homes, this forces the use of open fires and crude stoves for cooking and heating their homes which ultimately increases carbon emissions.

The vast majority of the people who require electricity do not even live within a national grid and it is the expansion of the national grid which is the first major hurdle. There are heavy upfront costs associated with expanding and connecting homes to the grid, particularly when there are larger landmasses to cover. The utility companies would not be incentivised to do so due to losses incurred from having such large set up costs for little, if any profit from the paying customers.

Current Solutions for Energy Poverty

The introduction of mobile phone app based energy usage tracking and billing has been a practical solution worldwide. The ability for users to know exactly how much energy they are using will give families an insight into the value they get from their energy provider. The app will also allow them to pay their bill easily, increasing the likelihood of a customer to pay their bills meaning increased reinvestment by the energy firm into the company to improve the infrastructure.

Energy companies using mobile apps has been quite successful in Uganda, where Umeme (electricity supplier) has a system that utilizes payment by mobile phone therefore giving customers convenience that will result in increased bill payment, reduced illegal bypasses and an expansion of the national grid, providing connection to the grid for the 85% of Ugandans who have none.

In America more sustainable energy and heating solutions are available for example; modern wood burning stoves are manufactured under Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulation to have greatly reduced emissions and reduced particulate pollution.

The use of stoves to heat homes as well as solar energy collection and storage are becoming more affordable and popular for low energy use households as heating bills can be reduced simply by switching to cheaper, more sustainable fuels.

There are also government financial incentives in the US currently for people to improve the energy efficiency of houses and businesses. You can currently earn money for the excess energy provided and put back into the grid, giving home owners a reason to employ green energy alternatives and therefore lowering the heating bills for their tenants.

Government assistance can be sought in certain states such as Colorado which offer to help residents with their heating bills if their income is less than $40,008 annually or less for a family of four; $19,416 or less for an individual. A lot of Americans do not realize these programs are available to them and so miss out, so raising awareness of these programs would certainly help those who are struggling with energy bills.

Future Solutions for Energy Poverty

Applications of renewable energy and the rewards they can reap are always in discussion but a major problem with governments vouching for and funding renewable energy as a large scale infrastructure solution is that buildings that produce renewable energy comes at a high cost.

US law means that energy companies and factory owners must comply with new regulations and this often means a cost for them to retrofit old production equipment with new greener models. This in turn raises the price to manufacture products and generate electricity initially forcing companies to increase their prices before we see long term financial benefit.

However there are a vast amount of practical solutions for individuals to help reduce energy costs that are waiting to be funded on indiegogo.com, products like the China clean cook stove aim to provide a portable and efficient way of heating whilst also drastically reducing air pollution allowing people to switch to a cheaper fuel.

Using biomass as a fuel source is fantastic because the growth of fuel plants offset the pollution that they create overall; the only issue is sourcing find wood or wood pellet fuel in your area which most of the time is not too hard.

Also products such as the Vortex Bladeless is an affordable means an individual can generate their own energy through wind power without having to install heavy and expensive wind turbines. This technology could also be adopted by governments as an inexpensive way of producing energy, making it cheaper for citizens to afford whilst also being completely sustainable.

Other proposals that can be employed in the future is to ban the power that energy companies have to shut off the services to individuals with unpaid bills, there should be a much fairer system to deal with the issue of unpaid bills.

The real issue with energy poverty is the rifts it causes in society; the poor are working constantly to pay their household bills, a high proportion being energy bills whilst the rich have expendable income for recreation. This is sure to put pressure on the poorer in society who are worried about their services being shut off, especially those who are not even connected to an electrical grid.

We should all be joining the discussion about energy poverty and how we can ensure that in this modern age people in developed and non developed countries has access to heating, lights and electrical cooking appliances.

Written by Jude McLean, a green energy consultant and sustainable heating devotee

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