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Giving enough recognition to energy poverty in the Western Balkans

Energy poverty, although still missing a universal definition, is gaining more recognition on the daily political agenda in the Europea Union. The phenomenon is perhaps most easily understood as a situation in which households are lacking access to, or are unable to afford, basic energy services needed to maintain culturally accepted lifestyle: heating, cooling, cooking, washing, indoor lighting and cleaning.

With the debate on the definition of the exact terminology ongoing, there is a common agreement that it is a problem which urgently needs to be addressed.

While all countries face some form of energy poverty in varying extents, the prevalence of energy poverty in Western Balkans’ countries is severe and incomparable to those manifestations which are typically seen in the Western and Northern EU countries.

The Western Balkans face specific hardships brought to citizens through historical and cultural determinants such as:

  • traditionally low prices of energy which are now increasing due to liberalisation of energy markets;
  • the low energy efficiency of dwellings and household appliances (the typical house has no thermal insulation, many have single glazed windows and appliances older than 40 years);
  • high prevalence of fuelwood stove heating (where only one room or part of the dwelling is heated);
  • a low prevalence of cooling systems;
  • low incomes and high unemployment rates;
  • hidden tenant status by living in family houses with few related families sharing the dwelling (whereas only one family actually owns the building);
  • theft and accessibility issues (some parts still do not have access to the electricity grid or supply is intermittent and unreliable).

Wit the COVID-19 crisis the situation is likely to worsen as economic impacts are likely to be more severe in those already less developed and more economically unstable countries. Due to either the complete lack of access to certain energy services (as a result of no connection to the electricity grid) or because of the inability to afford certain energy services, people are forced to live in inadequate living conditions posing a serious threat to their health and wellbeing. 

Society for Sustainable Development Design (DOOR) from Zagreb, Croatia, together with many partners, continuously works on increasing awareness on energy poverty through a wide range of fact-based advocacy actions. Our particular focus is on South-East Europe (SEE) and the Western Balkans, as this region is the most vulnerable.

The recently completed project Fair (FER) solutions for a better community was awarded by the jury as best in the youth category at the European Sustainable Week (EUSWE2020).

During the visits to households, simple energy audits were done together with a survey on living and health conditions. All visited households were equipped with simple and low-cost energy efficiency solutions. The data collected clearly indicates the severity of energy poverty in the region and calls for urgent action. The consequences of living in energy poverty are severe and are commonly manifesting as poor physical and mental health. In the Western Balkans region, there are almost no mechanisms in place for protecting the most vulnerable groups. Public policy dialogue on energy poverty is typically framed around the Western EU agenda, with some aspects of the global south covered. However, specificities and hardships of manifestation in the Western Balkans region are not given enough recognition.

Decision-makers, NGOs, international donors and all other actors start the debate on specificities of energy poverty in the Western Balkans while designing, testing and implementing tools for its alleviation. Energy efficiency should be at the core of all the measures and it should be the first measure to be implemented as it simultaneously helps in eliminating the causes while easing the consequences.

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