[06.09.22] EmpowerMed’s practical actions to tackle energy poverty in the Mediterranean with focus on women

By Lidija Živčič, FOCUS

In September 2019, the H2020 project EmpowerMed started. The project aims to contribute to energy poverty alleviation and health improvement of people affected by energy poverty in the coastal areas of Mediterranean countries, with a particular focus on empowering women. Its contribution is based on the implementation of practical solutions that empower people affected by energy poverty to manage their energy consumption or bills and improve their access to appropriate energy resources. These actions can be classified into the following categories: community approaches, household visits, Do-it-Yourself (DIY) solutions, health workshops and support on small investments. After finishing the implementation of the actions, this article gives some insights into the actions and their success.

Community approaches (collective advisory assemblies)

Following peer-to-peer methodologies, collective advisory assemblies gather about 20-30 people affected by energy poverty to transfer and exchange knowledge and skills about any action that can reduce effects of energy poverty (energy use, reading energy bills, receive governmental benefits, implementing simple measures for energy saving, choosing the best tariff, changing energy providers, organizing collective purchase of energy, accessing building rehabilitation grants, etc). The main specific characteristic of the community approach is that it uses collective intelligence of the network to engage members to support each other.

Community approaches were implemented in Albania (Vlora), Croatia (Zadar), France (Marseille), Italy (Padova), Slovenia (Obala) and Spain (Barcelona), bringing together over 1700 people affected by energy poverty. Barcelona’s community action approach resulted in the highest cost savings (almost 50.000 EUR) and enabled over 20 people to be free of debt. Barcelona’s pilot action also contributed to the 35.000 debt condonations occurred in 2021 in Catalonia thanks to the agreement reached between Endesa (main utility in the region) and the Generalitat de Catalunya after the massive pressure of energy activists. Other pilots took a more informational approach with no direct action. The only exception is found in Obala (Slovenia), where an efficient lighting device was handled to participants, resulting in the cost, energy and emissions savings.

This activity was the most successful in terms of economics savings, especially in Barcelona. Political action led to protection measures towards vulnerable people, which helps freeing people from debt. Along with household visits, women participation was almost always stronger than men participation, which shows that women are more at risk.

Household visits with energy audit, package of devices and tailor-made advising

In contrast to the previous approach, this one acts on single households having one expert (advisor) providing useful information to the household inhabitants. During the visit, an energy audit and energy and water use analytics are performed by expert advisors. After identifying the potentials for energy and water saving, the advisors implement low-cost measures by installing free devices and give advice for using the devices to help the household reduce energy and water consumption and bills.

Household visits were implemented in all pilots except Barcelona. Over the five pilots, in total 577 households participated. Women represented 63.2% of participants. This activity was the most successful in terms of energy savings, as it was the only action whose main purpose was to implement energy savings measures directly in affected people’s homes. The achieved heat, electricity and water savings translated into emissions and cost savings. As with this action energy, emission and economic savings are quite visible, the following table presents some achievements in the pilot sites.

Table 1: Overall results for Household visits action

Participant households1002002562190
Energy savings* [kWh/year]112,426880,92217,02818,29868,900
    % Electricity savings58%87%60%9%51%
    % Heat savings42%13%40%91%49%
Water savings [m3/year]2,22704855451,261
Primary energy savings [kWh/year]214,5551,336,75633,93922,351126,424
Cost savings [€/year]9,92294,6242,7902,52911,977
CO2 savings [kgCO2/year]51,135188,8712,3674,439396

*Includes heat and electricity.

Source: data collected during household visits of EmpowerMed

Do-it-yourself solutions

This action links a variety of DIY solutions, adjusted to the situation in pilot areas. Some DIY measures implemented are workshops for self-production of solar thermal panels, some for DIY reading of smart meters, and some for DIY small low-cost energy and water measures.

Most of the DIY workshops focused on informing and raising awareness about potential ways to save energy, but no measurable results are available at this point. Energy savings are expected to happen as a result of behavioral changes, suggested tariff changes or small investments done as a result of the workshops. However, no validation of the activity results is possible as all the responsibility is given to the participants after the empowerment sessions.

This activity, along with the other workshops (help in financial schemes), showed different female participation levels depending on the participant characteristics. The collected data shows that even when women are actively looking to take an active role in energy decision-making, for instance by participating at EmpowerMed’s activities, their power to make decisions about energy services at home is limited, or at least, lower than for men participants. This is evidenced by the fact that, in all cases, share of women in charge of paying the bills or being the contract-holder at home is lower than the share of female participants in the activity.

Health workshops

Health workshops were implemented in two ways. On one hand there were the workshops meant to help health experts and practitioners detect health impacts of energy poverty and equip them with simple measures to reduce the impacts or direct people to further assistance programs, hence indirectly helping to tackle energy poverty. On the other hand, there were workshops that address mental health by including therapists in the community approaches, hence enabling people affected by energy poverty to unload part of the emotional burden caused by energy poverty.

The impact of the health workshops conducted in Croatia, France, Italy, Slovenia and Spain is difficult to quantify as no direct energy, cost or emissions savings are obtained from this action. However, health indicators show that women show health problems more frequently (more than double) than men when openly speaking of their energy situation. Moreover, EmpowerMed’s actions impacted a relevant number of people whose health condition is self-perceived as poor or very poor. Women participation in these workshops was high, on one side because many health practitioners are women, and on the other side because among people, affected by energy poverty, women are more affected.

Assessing feasibility and providing support for small investments

This activity links the various activities around small investments potential or implementation. Activities depend on the needs of the pilot site, from directing people to available funds to assessing deep renovation feasibility. Overall, 64 persons participated in the three pilots that implemented this action: Padova (Italy), Obala (Slovenia) and Barcelona (Spain). Women represented the majority of participants.

Lessons learned from EmpowerMed’s actions to tackle energy poverty

The preliminary results from EmpowerMed’s pilots adds evidence about some of the hypothesis on which the project was built: energy poverty is a problem among Mediterranean households, and affects women stronger. This is evidenced by the large share of women that participated in the actions carried out in all the different pilots, which was particularly higher when only vulnerable people were addressed. Even though this is a trend that was observed across all pilots, the gender misbalance is larger in some countries than others, which might be a reflection of the local social gender dynamics. When dealing with vulnerable groups, women empowerment should be always kept on mind.

In terms of comparison among actions implemented, it can be seen in picture 1

Picture 1. EmpowerMed actions compared by number of participants and economic savings

Source: data collected during the actions of EmpowerMed

Regarding the activities, the following conclusions can be drawn:

  • Household visits achieve significant energy and cost savings and provide good knowledge of the situation in home as the work is specific to each household separately. However, these actions are investment and labor intensive as they give a set of elements to reduce the energy consumption (such as led bulbs) and there is a 1 expert for 1 receiver relation.
  • Community approaches take longer to build and their success is strongly related to the social cohesion of the local community. Results of its implementation were quite different across the implementation sites. However, the implementation leads in time to building a group of activists and not just a network of affected people, giving space to people mobilization and reaction that act as pressure measures to governments and utilities. As a consequence, larger impacts might be reached and their yields might be high in terms of cost savings. In addition, the labor costs are relatively low, as there is a relation of 1 or 2 experts for every 20 persons involved.
  • Workshops might be more efficient when combined with impactful actions. Workshops with added value or innovative features (such as those simulating the costs of the electricity bill after seeing the price volatility of electricity) might result in more lasting impact, although it might be hard to evaluate, as these are punctual actions with no possible validation metrics. Workshops tend to respond to particular expressions of interests by people affected by energy poverty, which ensures to some extent that the participants will apply the shared knowledge.
  • The measure of impacts of the actions should go beyond energy, cost, and emission saving indicators, as gender, social or other aspects interfere with the obtained results.