Winter cold. Summer heat. Extremes of either can trigger strong physical reactions in the human body. Frost bite and hypothermia. Dehydration and heat stroke. EXPOSED examines the ways in which people across Europe become vulnerable when sufficient energy to support health and well-being is either unavailable or unaffordable.

The effects of prolonged exposure to temperatures that lie just beyond the comfort range of 15ºC to 25ºC are less obvious: sporadic and chronic illness, mental distress, economic hardship, physical and social isolation. When energy costs climb and economies stagnate, these impacts are often far more prevalent and ultimately carry higher costs for individuals and for national health and social systems.

At present, between 50 and 125 million EU citizens are estimated to be exposed to energy poverty, which often means being unable to stay adequately warm, living with damp and mould, falling behind on energy bills, and making difficult choices like whether to ‘heat or eat’. Photos and stories from France, Hungary, Spain and Sweden highlight that the causes and effects are slightly different in each case, and demonstrate that no European country is completely immune.   

Most EU governments recognize the need to ensure that all citizens can tap into energy sources that are both reliable and affordable, but coordinated action by the range of necessary stakeholders is often stalled. To date, lack of consensus on a precise definition — is it energy poverty, fuel poverty, energy vulnerability or something else? — stands in the way of determining how best to address it. 

Find out more about the  EU Energy Poverty Observatory .

Find out more about the EU Energy Poverty Observatory.

FRANCE • Feeling cold at home

Winters in France are far from extreme. Even in the coldest cities of Strasbourg and Rouen, average temperatures in January hover around freezing. But the climate, particularly in the north, is damp, and cool, damp air can easily draw heat from the human body, creating the perception of a lower temperature. In such a climate, the fact that about two-thirds of homes in France were built before 1975 — indeed, in both large cities and rural areas, many are more than a century old — means they pre-date energy efficiency codes.

In addition to the 10% of household budget being spent on energy, France considers the perception of ‘feeling’ cold and a calculation of being ‘low income with high costs (LI/HC)’ as important measures of la précarité enérgetique (energy vulnerability). Between 2006 and 2012, the number of people reporting being cold jumped by 44%, to a total of just over 7.5% of households. Combining all three metrics, L’Observatoire national de la précarité énergétique (or ONPE or National Energy Poverty Observatory) estimates that 19.5% of French households (representing 12.5 million people) are affected. ONPE studies note that rates are high among retired and unemployed people; whether they are owners or renters, these groups spend more time in poorly equipped homes, thus paying higher energy costs in relation to limited incomes while also being more susceptible to feeling cold for more hours per day.

 © Stéphanie Lacombe

Lens, FranceRaymonde, 59, unemployed and her husband, René 62, retired, are tenants in social housing with their 28-year-old son. Having acquired a few debts, they could not keep up with the bills.

Gaz de France (GDF) cut off the gas supply about two years ago. Now, we have a single electric heater that we move as needed. The washing machine broke down three years ago, so I wash our things by hand. The fridge is empty, like a demonstration fridge at the appliance store. We get used to everything…except the idea of being on the street.

Sète, France • Corinne, 40, single mother, four children, assistant to unemployed persons. Corrine’s rental apartment is classified ‘indecent’; because it has wet closets, walls and windows, the family’s clothes are moldy.

I have support from Revenu de solidarité active (RSA); but once all my bills are paid, I have €70/month left. I go without heat during the day while the children are at school. Sometimes, it goes down to 13°C in the living room; some days, it's colder inside than in the street. During the holidays, my daughter stays in bed all day, under the duvet with the cats to keep her warm. In the evening we sit on the floor together, below the radiator. Still, it is just 16°C.   

Le Vexin, France • Nadine, 71, widow, 2 children, retired commercial employee. Nadine was a young bride when she and her husband bought this prefabricated home in 1964; there is no foundation under the floor.

You can feel the mold and humidity that comes from the ground: the smell is unbearable. I keep my clothes in plastic and wipe the mold from inside cabinets, but it keeps coming back. I decline invitations from friends because I cannot invite them back. I am ashamed for people to see this.

Ganges, France • Françoise, 56, a divorcée with three children and retired caregiver, bought this home when she retired in 2011, planning to repair it with her son’s help.  

Buying the house left me with €15 000 of savings. In the end, I used the money to help pay some debts my son had. Now, I have €50/month to live on. Sleeping here in winter is difficult. I have no electricity, no water and no toilet. I use candles for lighting and heat canned food on a Butagaz stove. I stuff the windows with clothes and warm myself with an oil stove.

Nanterre, France • Fatima, 60, married, housewife, four children, two of which have disabilities. Fatima’s house is 34 years old. The electric convectors are original—like ‘old toasters’ she says; she doesn’t feel safe using them.

We cannot afford to install gas heating, so I use an oil stove that I move from room to room. At night, we put it on the landing upstairs to reach all the rooms. And I put our clothes on the floor in front of it to dry. Eating with a jacket on is not nice but we can do it. We can deprive ourselves of a steak dinner — it’s a luxury. But not heating.

HUNGARY • Summer heat in Soviet-style buildings

The suburb of Óbuda, Békásmegyer is often referred to as Budapest’s ‘concrete jungle’. The nickname reflects the predominance of massive, pre-fabricated apartment blocks built between the 1960s and 1980s, under Communist social schemes.

From a distance, noticeable attributes of the 650,000 ‘panel’ apartments in Hungary’s large cities include their long, exposed facades — with nothing to provide shading. Those living inside know the walls are thin and insulation is poor. Many occupants report experiencing very high indoor temperatures in summer. With the average salary in Budapest being €600/month, few can afford to buy an air-conditioning unit and keep up with the associated electricity costs.

In winter, Hungarians face a different challenge also linked to socialist construction and billing principles. Most buildings are connected to district heating, which can be extremely effectively if properly designed and operated. In this context, many consumers have adequate indoor heating but are trapped with disproportionately high costs. They have little control over temperature and energy bills are calculated according to apartment size, not actual consumption. Additionally, technical and institutional constraints make it difficult for individuals to change supplier or fuel, or to carry out efficiency improvements. This conditions often lead to payment arrears, indebtedness, risk of disconnection, or reduced consumption of other basic goods and services.

© Janos Kummer

3rd District, Budapest, Hungary • Mónika Kovács, 32, Gábor Karácsonyi, 35, and Gergő Zalán Karácsonyi, 2. This young family lives in Óbuda, Békásmegyer, also known as Budapest’s concrete jungle. Once the temperature starts to rise, the buildings become unbearably hot. In the morning, Moni takes Zalán (1.5 years) out to play in the park. When it is time to go back home for a nap, she keeps the lights out to avoid creating extra heat and using electricity. Once Gábor arrives home from work, they spend the evening together near the windows. It seems every waking hour is spent avoiding the sun and searching for a breeze.

2nd District, Budapest, Hungary • Lőrincné (Kati) Unger, 75, retired since 2005. Living on a tight budget, Kati looks for ways to stay cool without using electricity. Rather than turn on a fan — which she says is worth nothing when it is 35ºC to 40ºC outside — she props open windows to keep a cross-breeze flowing. In the afternoons, she waters the small garden behind her building to help cool the temperature for everyone.

22nd District, Budapest, Hungary • Gergely Neményi, 27, and Kinga Farkas, 23. As a young couple just starting their life together, Gergő and Kinga bought this rather small attic apartment in 2015. They chose it partly for the price and partly because they both work nearby. They began to renovate but ran short of money before they could buy an air-conditioning unit. Now that summer has arrived, their living area just under the roof heats up quickly—often reaching 30ºC to 34ºC. By August, they worry it will be as hot inside as outside, more like 35ºC to 40ºC.

SPAIN • Economic crisis makes it hard to stay cool

Across Spain, day-time highs of 40°C are not unusual in the months of July and August. But the financial crisis that has plagued the country since 2008 is making scorching days much more unbearable for many more residents. In the period 2006-12, a staggering 25% of Spanish households (7 million people) reported not being able to afford cooling in summer. In 2010, pre-mature deaths linked to energy poverty surpassed the number of fatalities from car accidents. 

In this case, relatively new factors come into play. Unemployment in Spain spiked to 25.8% in 2015 while all levels of government were implementing austerity measures. But reforms to energy policy and energy pricing likely had a bigger effect. In an effort to increase energy independence and boost the share of renewables, Spain has deployed large-scale solar farms and encouraged electrification of energy services, including household heating and cooling. As a result, household energy consumption rose by 33% during a period (2008-12) when electricity prices jumped by 63%. While unemployment has since receded to 16% in 2017, the other factors are keeping many people into a home-style pressure cooker when it comes to managing budgets and staying adequately cool.

© Edgar Melo-Gutiérrez

Barcelona, Spain • Manolo Cardona Soto, 14. Together with his mother, Blanca, Manolo is squatting in an apartment in central Barcelona. They are joined by his sister, Joanna, and her son, Julian (15). As the apartment has no electricity or water connections, the family siphons some light by tapping into a socket and a bulb in the building entrance. Every day, the boys take empty water bottles to a public water fountain for refilling.

Vendrell, Tarragona, Spain • Esther Vera. Esther has been squatting in this house since 2013, when she was evicted from her previous home. Two years ago, she got a meter box for water, so she has access to and pays for that service. The electricity company, however, refuses to supply the house. Esther has no choice but to tap into a street-side outlet to get enough electricity for light and basic needs. 

Vendrell, Tarragona, Spain • Rosa García. Rosa remembers well the day her situation went from bad to worse. She and her children, who have been squatting in this house since 2016, returned to find that thieves had broken in and stolen the windows, the wall sockets, and the entire water and electricity installation. Now they run one extension cord to an outside electrical supply and feed other rooms with a network of power bars.

Oliver, Zaragoza, Spain • María del Rocío. Because of a respiratory condition, Maria needs a machine to help her breath at night and sometimes during the day, particularly when it gets very hot in summer. Maria lives with her husband Luis (who also has medical problems) and their seven children. Together, they get social assistance of about €650/month. The need for medical equipment is a Catch-22; while necessary, it drives up their electricity bill.

Zaragoza, Spain • On a summer night when the temperature is still 38ºC, a couple of Romanian immigrants cool themselves off by jumping into a public fountain. During the day, they collect metal and objects from the trash to sell to recycling plants. (Note: Permission to take and use this photo was obtained, on the condition that names would not be published.)

Oliver, Zaragoza, Spain • Antonio Hérnandez. Long after dark, Antonio plays in the street with some of his children (he has 10) and nephews. Along with 30 other families — mostly Roma — the Hernandez clan was moved 14 years ago from the Grey Flats (Los pisos grises) to the Red Duplex (La Camisera), one of the city’s highest conflict areas. The community claims ownership of the Grey Houses, based on the district having been created in 1915 and, in part, donated by a priest named Manuel Oliver. Unable to provide proof, they now have to rent or buy again.

SWEDEN • Power outages have economic impacts

The energy challenge in Sweden’s remote northern areas is less about lack of electricity and more about frequent outages. Some last only a few minutes, others stretch out over several days. Knowing that outages will come, local residents invest heavily in being well-prepared. Given the country’s strong economic standing, a degree of outrage at being exposed to this vulnerability over several decades is not out of line. 

Progress is evident on some fronts in Sweden. When existing dams were built, many people were forced to re-locate and traditional grounds of the indigenous Sami people were destroyed. Unharnessed rivers and the people who rely on them are now better protected by law, and Sweden’s share of other renewables is increasing. 

© Simon Eliasson

Jokkmokk, Sweden • Messaure Power Station. Sweden relies heavily on hydro-electricity; 1 900 plants across the country generate more than 50% of supply. Several of the largest dams are located in remote northern areas, meaning power lines are exposed to harsh weather throughout much of the year.

Nattavaara, Gällivare, Sweden • Dirk Hagenbuch, 48, owner of village store with Eva-Karin Johansson Björk, 45, employee. The local general store struggles with frequent and long-lasting outages, a problem that escalated over the fall of 2015.

At one point we had no electricity for 43 hours. The week after, an outage lasted more than 20 hours. Food and goods worth hundreds of thousands of Swedish crowns went bad.

The local business association has since invested in an expensive generator that guarantees power supply to several enterprises.

Nattavaara, Gällivare, Sweden Inga-Lillie Axelsson, 81, retired. 

I've had around 30 to 40 short outages during the past six months. I keep the bathtub filled with water and make sure to keep canned food, as well as a battery-powered light and radio, and a gas stove. The worst part is that even the phone stops working; it worries me that if I fall I won't be able to call for help.

Kitteludden, Jokkmokk, Sweden • Margareta Kuhmunen, 68, and Lars Kuhmunen, 75, reindeer herders.

Since we have no neighbors and spend most of the summertime away herding reindeer, we are particularly vulnerable to outages. We have no one to notify the power company. Last year, the house was without electricity for weeks: all the meat we had in freezers spoiled.


Find out more about the EU Energy Poverty Observatory.