What is fuel poverty?

No one cares about my cold home

It's all so overwhelming. I'm chilled to the bone. Laundry days are the worst, with damp clothes hanging all over the flat. I can't afford my energy bills or to buy groceries, and I've stopped answering my phone.  It's always the woman from the gas company, saying she wants to talk about a "plan" – like THEY want to help me. I'm too embarrassed to tell anyone how bad things have gotten. Anyways, I got myself into this mess; it's my job to get me back out. If I don't freeze first.

Ten years ago, anyone facing such a situation would have had good reason to feel desperate – and desperately alone. But as energy prices have risen faster than people's incomes, many governments have come to recognise that a large number of their populations are facing impossible circumstances, in their own homes. And they are stepping in to help.

In fact, government engagement in tackling fuel poverty has had a ripple effect. In some countries, new laws make it illegal for utility companies to cut off electricity or gas during winter months, and oblige the company to set up a payment plan rather than remove services.

One common approach  is to provide financial assistance for getting caught up on energy bills or grants that cover home upgrades such as installing insulation, a new furnace (boiler) or better windows.

Other policies, implemented either nationally or by municipal governments, focus on forcing landlords to upgrade low quality houses and flats before they can advertise them for rent.

And yes, utility companies DO want to help their customers. Most of their websites offer tips on how to save energy and information about how to shift high-energy activities to hours when electricity or gas rates are lower. Several companies even promote new devices to help people understand how much energy different household activities consume.

Some countries still lag behind in offering effective programs, but as they begin to do so, they have the distinct advantage of being able to learn from the trial and error processes others have already gone through. 

A good part of EnAct's reporting over the next few weeks will demonstrate how much has changed, and how much help is available. That said, one key challenge remains: governments are equally committed to protecting the privacy of citizens, which means the best these actors can do is to offer help. It's up to each person in need to step forward and accept.