“The inability of a household to access – in its home – the energy it needs, at an affordable cost in terms of its income.”Le Forum Bruxellois De Lutte Contre La Pauvreté
This is how the Poverty Alleviation Forum in Brussels (“Forum Bruxellois De Lutte Contre La Pauvreté” in French) defines energy poverty or fuel poverty. In other words, a household is energy poor if paying its heating or electricity bills puts it in financial difficulty.
This burden, still as onerous despite milder winters in recent years, puts many Belgian households in a precarious situation. According to the latest figures published by the King Baudouin Foundation, 21.7% of them were affected in 2017. This figure is even greater if we look at Wallonia and the Brussels Region in isolation (27.8% and 28.3% respectively). Flemish households, on the other hand, fare better (15.9%).
However, there are initiatives that try to curb these statistics, but it seems that they are not enough. To better understand the possible solutions, let us first try to get to the bottom of the problem.
The King Baudouin Foundation publishes an energy poverty barometer for Belgium every year. This gives a very clear picture of how the situation is developing in Belgium. The methodology applied by the Foundation revolves around three different types of poverty:
This distinction provides a better understanding of the different cases in which distressed individuals may find themselves in relation to their energy consumption. Moreover, the latest barometer report (published in March 2019) also showed that energy poverty particularly affected the following groups of people:
The sad observation that can be made is that this problem mainly affects people whose general social situation is already difficult.
Let us now look at the causes leading to a situation of energy poverty. In truth, they are complex and varied, and above all, they are intimately linked to the personal situation of each household concerned. However, we can isolate certain factors that regularly recur:
It is no coincidence that people at risk of poverty are particularly affected by the phenomenon. Low disposable income inevitably leads to payment difficulties, not only for energy bills, but also for all other daily expenses.
The cost of housing is taking up a greater portion of the budgets of all social classes combined. Once the rent is paid, a household can find itself in an uncomfortable financial situation. This, therefore, affects its ability to pay its energy bills and may cause it to voluntarily deprive itself of heating.
A high heating bill is often caused by poor insulation in the home. Many households could actually overcome their energy poverty by doing some insulation work.
All the aforementioned causes depend on the same basic problem: the cost of energy. Heating and lighting are quite expensive in Belgium. While consumers can sometimes benefit from lower prices in the energy markets, this is not always enough to significantly reduce their heating and electricity bills.
In certain situations, your network operator may cut off your electricity and gas supply.
Energy poverty can mean not being able to pay your energy bill at all. What if you find yourself in this situation? What are you risking? During the coldest months of the year, the concept of the winter ban on evictions allows you, to a certain extent, to protect yourself from a difficult situation. In principle, this ban prevents your eviction and a power cut (electricity, gas, water) in the case of unpaid rent or bills. In principle. The winter ban on evictions has few restrictions in France whereas the situation in Belgium is somewhat different. On the one hand, the eviction ban only applies if you live in social housing. On the other hand, each region handles the situation differently when it comes to energy contracts.
In Wallonia, the winter ban on evictions extends from 1 November to 15 March. If you are in default of payment during this period, your DNO may impose a budget meter. You are under no obligation to accept the installation of such a meter, but it will be at your own risk. Your supplier may actually ask to cut off your gas or electricity supply in the event of a refusal. Exceptions apply if you are a protected customer – a status that you have the right to request from your public social assistance centre (CPAS) if you receive a letter of formal notice from your gas or electricity supplier.
In Brussels, you are protected from 1 October to 31 March. Whatever happens, your home cannot be without electricity or gas. Sibelga, the regional DNO, is obliged to provide you with energy during the aforementioned period. This can also be extended beyond 31 March in the case of a harsh winter.
In Flanders, special conditions apply from 1 December to 1 March. A power cut is only authorised in some specific cases (meter fraud on your part, presence of danger, etc.).
If you have trouble paying your energy bills, remember that you can benefit from several types of support from the CPAS in your area. We have already mentioned the status of protected customer, but there is also the Gas Electricity Fund. This is a material aid put in place to allow you to better understand your energy needs. It can help you, for example, to buy less energy-consuming appliances or even carry out small renovations.
However, the CPAS and the King Baudouin Foundation rang the alarm in October 2019.. Indeed, these institutions believe that there is an urgent need to refinance the Fund so that the actions undertaken can be truly effective. Alexandre Viviers, manager of a consultancy firm in Brussels, even declared that the Gas Electricity Fund is lacking 30 million euros a year to properly carry out its tasks.
Nevertheless, any help, however small, is welcome when it comes to energy poverty. If you think you are in this situation, we would encourage you to contact your CPAS as soon as possible.
Do not hesitate to be proactive and take initiatives to reduce your energy costs. There are countless ways to reduce your heating and electricity bills. That said, if you were to remember only two things, it would be to check the insulation in your home and regularly compare your prices. Already with these two elements, you should be able to make substantial savings on your energy bills.
Many cases of energy poverty are due to poor insulation. It is therefore absolutely essential that you check that your home is well insulated. Do you have double glazing? Are your roof and walls properly insulated? If the answer is no, we recommend that you start renovations as soon as possible or speak to your landlord. This may require a certain budget, but the savings on your future heating bills are well worth the effort. Also, don’t forget that you can benefit from Home Rewards for your work, and, if this is not enough, you can apply for assistance from the Gas Electricity Fund, as previously mentioned. Finally, a group purchase system can allow you to benefit from advantageous prices for your insulation work.
It cannot be said often enough: it is crucial to compare your energy contracts regularly. This is even more pertinent if you are having trouble paying your bills. Perhaps you currently have an outdated and expensive energy contract? Check it. It is possible that by switching suppliers, you can save several hundred euros on your annual gas and electricity expenditure. Also find out about the benefits of a fixed price contract and a variable price contract. Which would be best for you?
In short, we strongly advise all consumers to check at least once a year that they are benefiting from the best prices to which they are entitled. This is the first step needed to prevent or overcome energy poverty.
Do you have more questions? We are happy to assist you. Please call our advisers on 0800 37 369 to help you find the energy contract that is best for you.