“To heat or to eat.” That’s the choice that millions in energy poverty face despite falling oil and gas prices.

 

By Marilyn Smith

The price of oil has plunged to its lowest level in over a decade. The cost of natural gas is down 50% in the past year. Energy is suddenly cheap and it has never been easier to heat your home, right?

Not quite.

Despite the drop in global oil and gas prices, many people struggle to pay their home energy bills.

Consider these facts:

  • One in four households in England headed by 16 to 24-year-olds has difficulty paying home energy bills, according to the National Children’s Bureau (NCB).
  • The health of nearly four million English children is at risk in homes that are constantly too cold, the NCB says.
  • A quarter of all English households face overwhelming energy costs even though domestic heating oil prices in the UK dropped by more than half between March 2012 and December 2015.

Too often the choice comes down to this: to heat or to eat.

Across Europe and North America, governments are taking steps to address “fuel poverty”, defined as a household that spends more than 10 percent of its income on energy bills.

When bills for heating, electricity and transportation squeeze budgets, too often the choice comes down to this: to heat or to eat.

Cold kids, especially those who are also malnourished, tend to catch more colds and viral infections, and suffer from asthma more often. More sick days mean they fall behind at school and put their parents in a Catch-22: missing work to care for a sick child may put a serious dent in monthly income.

Young parents also put themselves at risk: one study shows 20 percent will skip meals to be sure their kids are warm and reasonably well-fed.

COLD@HOME, a new multimedia project that I’m running and which will investigate fuel poverty over the next two months, has met students who spend longer hours in university libraries to avoid turning on the heat in their apartments.

“There’s nothing left to live on.”

Still, those at greatest risk from fuel poverty and its associated health problems are in the age bracket of their grandparents.

We chose to shoot the lead web documentary for COLD@HOME in Ukraine, where the population is facing its first winter since gas prices increased by 280 percent last April 1.

Our aim is to put personal stories about the impacts of energy poverty into context.

“There’s nothing left to live on,” says Katerina Nykonyvna after paying monthly energy bills of 1,780 Ukrainian hryvnia (59 euros). As her pension is just 1,902 hryvnia (63 euros), there’s precious little left over after the energy bills.

The 75-year-old pensioner is one of those hit hard by a sudden end to fuel subsidies. For decades, the government sold natural gas to households for about 20 percent of what it cost to import. The yearly subsidy bill was equivalent to $4.1 billion, about four percent of GDP.

Fuel poverty hits 100 million homes in Europe and North America.

As Ukraine struggled with an economic crisis and geopolitical tensions with Russia, the International Monetary Fund said it was ready to step in with a loan. But only if Ukraine got its own energy budget in order by eliminating the subsidy.

While the situation in Ukraine is extreme, the distress of old people like Katerina Nykonyvna is far from unique in Europe. Age UK, an NGO that provides services to pensioners, found in 2012 that 90 percent of seniors worried about the cost of energy and that 50 percent turned their heat down — even when they felt cold — to save money.

Chronically cold seniors are at greater risk of catching colds and viruses, and of potentially fatal respiratory and heart problems.

Experts estimate that more than 100 million households across Europe and North America live in fuel poverty. COLD@HOME will examine what fuel poverty is, what causes it and, importantly, who can do what about it.

Along with features like the web documentary, we will publish blogs explaining basic concepts and providing insights. An Energy Diary will give those living in fuel poverty a chance to tell their own stories. The project will also highlight ways to reduce energy consumption and provide help to those in need.


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Marilyn Smith is executive director of COLD@HOME, produced by the Energy Action Project (EnAct). EnAct’s long-term aim, reflected in the tagline “Reporting that seeks to empower”, is to make the media an active participant in efforts to ensure that every person on the planet has access to clean, reliable and affordable energy.

 

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