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Local energy cooperatives could be a solution to energy poverty. They also have the potential to improve women’s situation in the labor market

ENERGYLocal energy cooperatives could be a solution to energy poverty. They also have the potential to improve women's situation in the labor market

According to the Institute of Structural Research in Poland, energy poverty affects approximately 1.5 million households. Statistics show that this is also a female issue – almost every fourth of these households is run by a single woman or a single mother. Experts highlight that solving this problem requires not only financial aid, such as thermomodernization of buildings, but also promoting various forms of civic energy and investing in them, such as energy clusters or energy cooperatives. Their advantages include lower electricity bills, greater energy security, and enhancing local ties.

“Energy poverty is related to three factors. First, low income, second – high energy costs, and third – poor energy state of the house. Energy poverty is experienced by people who, for example, have a low income and at the same time live in a house that requires improving energy conditions. This also includes, for instance, people who are solely raising a child and inevitably have lower incomes, or retirees who live alone in a large house, and find it very difficult to heat it”, explains Alicja Piekarz from the Polish Green Network in an interview with Newseria Biznes agency.

The definition of energy poverty is described as the “difficulty of households in satisfying their basic energy needs,” i.e., a sufficient level of heat and electricity to power appliances, such as household appliances or water heating. As shown by last year’s report of the Institute of Structural Research, in 2021, energy poverty affected 1.5 million (i.e., 12%) of Polish households. Almost one in four (23%, or about 350 000 households) was managed by a single woman or a single mother. For comparison, households run by men only accounted for 6% (over 80 thousand) of households in an energy poverty crisis. According to the IBS report, women experiencing energy poverty are primarily older people, averaging over 65 years and living alone.

“The causes of this problem are numerous and quite complex, but the main one is living in homes that have a low energy standard and require a considerable amount of energy to be properly heated. The second cause is low income, which does not cover the high costs of energy. For women, we primarily see the sources of these problems in low incomes,” says Joanna Mazurkiewicz from the Institute of Structural Research.

For 84% of women in energy poverty, the primary source of income is a pension, rent, or other benefits. The remaining 16% of women subsist on earned income. According to analysts, the main cause of energy poverty in this group is the consequences of the gender pay gap – drawing lower income during employment and resulting in women’s lower retirement benefits.

“We need to move away from the approach in which we treat household as a universal energy consumer. We need solutions that will take into account their very specific, differentiated needs. To start with, it would be beneficial to broaden them to include persons with disabilities, or persons who have long-term illnesses and require the use of medical or rehabilitation devices that consume energy and result in higher energy demand than the standard. If we could include this in projects to combat energy poverty, we would definitely see a broader group of people and it would be easier to formulate actions that would assist them,” evaluates Joanna Mazurkiewicz.

“Energy poverty is a complex, interdisciplinary problem and to effectively fight it, a comprehensive approach is needed. This means that various institutions should be engaged in mitigating its impact,” adds Alicja Piekarz. “We also need to focus on eliminating the causes, not just the effects of energy poverty. Financial support is crucial here, such as in the energy modernization of buildings, the replacement of a heat source, for example”.

Experts point out that homes in Poland where heat escapes through non-sealed doors, uninsulated walls, or an inefficient heat source are one of the primary causes of energy poverty. The costs of thermomodernization of such a building typically exceed the financial capacity of households. The solution could be a well-functioning system of support for such investments, encompassing not only grants but also comprehensive advice. Such a system should be as simple as possible, guiding through the entire procedure (from advice, through application filing and processing, and settlement) and should be available locally.

Joanna Mazurkiewicz points out that investing in innovation, which we know have proven effective and could be scaled and permanently introduced to the system in Poland, could support the fight against energy poverty.

As she indicates, such solutions may include all forms of civic energy, including energy clusters or energy cooperatives, which are already a proven solution on the European scale. There are currently more than 3.5 thousand civic energy communities producing renewable energy in the European Union. These include small cooperatives and large cooperatives associating tens of thousands of people.

“Civic energy is a model in which energy production is based on renewable sources, and the production and saving of this energy is engaged by the public. Energy cooperatives are an example, which can provide energy security, stimulate investments in Renewable Energy Sources(RES), and also strengthen local social ties,” says Alicja Piekarz.

Energy cooperatives are governed by the Act on renewable energy sources of February 20, 2015. They create a local energy market for their members based on collective prosumer activity, relying on local resources. The idea is to provide cooperative members with greater security and cheaper energy and lower electricity bills, which could lead to a decrease in energy poverty.

Under current regulations, energy cooperatives can be established exclusively in rural and urban-rural municipalities, where the greatest potential for RES development exists – wind power plants, photovoltaic farms, or biogas plants. They can utilize, among other things, agricultural crops provided by a group of farmers. On the other hand, it is precisely rural areas that have the most substantial problems with energy poverty and ensuring stability of energy supplies.

“The role of energy cooperatives in solving the problem of energy poverty in Poland today is not as significant as it could be,” points out Aleksandra Krugły from the Habitat for Humanity Poland Foundation.

Although energy cooperativism can bring local communities significant savings and numerous non-financial benefits, it still does not enjoy popularity. Currently, there are only a few dozen cooperatives operating in Poland. Barriers include, among others, the fact that it is a formula that is still not widely promoted: the benefits of establishing a cooperative are little known. There is also a lack of knowledge about them among local governments. Experts also point out that the prevailing regulations do not secure the democratic and local nature of energy communities, which are struggling with a lack of institutional support and legal barriers.

“Energy cooperatives can be established in rural or urban-rural areas and fall within the competence of the Ministry of Agriculture. Today, the regulations are designed so that the focus is more on energy than on cooperatives. The law does not stipulate that a cooperative must actively engage and cooperate with the local community. This causes the energy cooperatives arising in Poland often do not differ from ordinary companies and this aspect of integration, certain social sensitivity is not utilized. Hence, there is ample space to improve regulations concerning energy cooperatives and develop their potential,” evaluates Aleksandra Krugły. “Including in the regulations the aspect of cooperativism linked with cooperation and sensitivity to the needs of the local community could result in energy cooperativism developing in a more social direction in Poland, which is already happening in many other European Union countries.”

As Joanna Mazurkiewicz notices, energy cooperatives and other forms of civic energy can not only be a way of mitigating the problem of energy poverty but also a tool for improving women’s situation on the job market, as they contribute to the development of local entrepreneurship.

“The energy sector is traditionally dominated by men. In the employment structure, women constitute only about 23% of employees, and the development of civic energy is a chance to reduce this discrepancy,” emphasizes the expert from the Institute of Structural Research. “In addition, women’s involvement increases trust and acceptance of these projects in local communities. Moreover, women have specific, unique experiences and skills that are very much needed in such projects, because – unlike big system energy – civic energy strongly relies on building relationships. Therefore, social skills – such as communication ability, negotiation, building relationships – are the area in which women can fulfil themselves and find an attractive career development path.”

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