The increase in prices worsens energy poverty in rural areas of Albania

Tahire Balla, 60 years old from Librazhdi, is a chronic asthmatic. In her house, the windows have been replaced with wooden boards. Throughout  most of the apartment, mold is visible on the walls. The room is lit by a lamp which is connected to the ceiling with two electric wires covered only with a layer of insulation, endangering not only the family, but also the residential block as it can cause fires in the building.

Although they receive light from a single lamp and do not use heating devices, the energy bill is salty for their financial situation, about 6 thousand new lek per month. As much as her asthma pumps. It is not rare that Tahire has to make a choice and confesses that she sacrifices her health to pay the high electricity bills.

“I can’t make it until the end of the month. Two asthma pumps that I make cost about 6,000 Lek per month. As much as I pay for the pumps, I get the electricity bill. While the bill is even higher in the winter, there have been cases of 8,000 Lek because the house does not keep us warm. I cook with energy because I don’t have access to gas and they are old installations. I am in debt at the pharmacy and every time I pay the electricity bills, I sacrifice one of my pumps,” she says.

Photo from the wooden board and plastic house of Tahire, a widowed head of the family from Librazhd.Photo: Arlis Alikaj

Tahire and her family say that during the winter season they have a chronic cough and the allergist in Librazhd had told them that they were at risk of getting asthma. The story of Tahire, who has to give up health care to pay the bills, is just one of many that you can find in Albania.

They suffer what is known as energy poverty. Energy poverty is the lack of access to modern sustainable energy services and products, a combination of low income, high expenditure of disposable income on energy and poor energy efficiency, especially in terms of building performance.

Tahire Balla. Photo: Arlis Alikaj

Energy poverty is the situation in which a household cannot access energy services at home at a level that can meet its social and material needs. It has serious consequences for health and health inequality. Critical energy poverty pathways to ill health are poor thermal and humidity conditions, inadequate housing quality, and unaffordability of domestic energy services.

Women’s health may be gravely affected because gender patterns expose them to spending more time at home with harmful indoor environments and stress or feelings of helplessness.

Photos from the house of Tahire Balla. Photos: Arlis Alikaj

Farie Topi is another resident from the town of Librazhd, part of the Roma community, who says that she feels more than anyone forgotten by the local government. Forgotten by everyone. “I have a lot of problems with energy bills. My children suffer from the humidity and cold of winter. The cold enters from all four sides. With plastic sheets I try to block the cracks”, says Farije.

Farije showing the window with insulating glue to block drafts. Photo: Arlis Alikaj

How many Albanians are affected by energy poverty?

Lira Hakani, civil society expert environmental and program manager at the Environmental Center for Development, Education and Networking (EDEN), which is one of the most active environmental organizations in Albania, provides us the answer to this question.

“It is difficult to give an exact number of how many Albanians are affected. It can be said that in general Albania is a country which is in energy poverty. Since it is a rather complex concept that is not only related to financial income, we are affected, who more and who less. Of course, families with lower incomes, with unsuitable conditions of their housing in relation to energy efficiency, do not manage to meet the basic needs of using electricity due to economic difficulties and are directly affected by the concept of energy poverty.

“EDEN environmental center within the E-ACT project ‘Empowering civil society activism and concrete contributions into the EU accession negotiation process in Albania’ financially supported by the European Union, is developing an assessment of energy poverty at the national level in rural areas of the country.

“The preliminary data from the initial processing show that over 90% of the respondents have not heard and do not know the law on energy performance in buildings, over 80% of the respondents have difficulties in paying the electricity bill, over 80% of the respondents use wood pellets to heat the interiors, which anyway has a cost which is significant compared to the average monthly income of the interviewed families, about 20% of the income”, says Lira Hakani.

Energy poverty in Albania, foreign crises and measures taken by the government to prevent this crisis

Has the foreign crisis affected this poverty? From the Eden Center study, since energy poverty is a complex concept, any change in the market has its impact. “Of course, at the moment of the increase in the prices of basic products, since there is currently no change in the value of the electricity bill, families have a weaker economy and it becomes more difficult to pay the electricity bill, or to carry out interventions in the apartment to improve the performance of the apartment”, says Lira Hakani.

The energy crisis has immediately reflected in our country, says Azmer Duleviç, an energy expert, given that our country covers only 70% of its electricity demand with its own production and imports 30%. “The price of energy on the stock exchange almost quadrupled, and for this reason the government has provided a sovereign fund worth over 100 million euros to cover the cost of energy, but this fund was still insufficient. Undoubtedly, the conflict between Russia and Ukraine has had an impact, because electricity in European countries is produced by thermal power plants whose raw material is Russian gas”, says Duleviç.

 

In the photo: Farie Topi’s daughter-in-law showing us the cracks in the wall. Photos: Arlis Alikaj

How much should the support package be for families in need?

To the question of what more needs to be done and if the measures so far are sufficient, Lira Hakani answers by saying that it is important that the most sensitive families, not only those assessed as vulnerable according to the definition of the law, but also the families that face in these moments of economic difficulty, they can be helped financially. “At one level or another we are all affected by energy poverty, a prioritization should be made of the families most affected by energy poverty so that there is fair support and that families are able to meet the basic needs of the demand for energy in their apartments”, she explains.

On the other hand, Duleviç shares the opinion that the bundle should be over 1000 kwh so that families in need are not affected. “On the part of the government, there should be financial support plans for family subscribers and businesses for the implementation of photovoltaic panels”, he emphasizes.

Prime Minister Edi Rama, during the Open Balkans conference in Ohrid, said that Albania is a vulnerable country in terms of the energy crisis, but energy expert Azmer Duleviç does not agree with this statement of the head of state. “Our country is a country with energy potentials such as hydro, wind (wind plants) and solar compared to countries in the region”, he concludes.

Consequences of energy poverty

The consequences of energy poverty affect daily life in terms of social and health standing. Since it is not possible to meet the basic needs of “comfort”, health is the first to be affected, influencing the increase of economic difficulties and a poor social life.

Energy poverty is burdening the health of vulnerable families in Librazhd and Prrenjas. From the visits to the vulnerable families, it is noticed that the living conditions of some of them are at the acceptable extremity.

“Energy poverty has serious consequences for health and health inequality. Critical energy poverty pathways to ill health are poor thermal and humidity conditions, inadequate housing quality, and unaffordability of domestic energy services. These conditions have been associated with excess winter mortality and morbidity due to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Women’s health can be affected adversely, because gender models expose them to spending more time at home with harmful indoor environments and stress or feelings of helplessness”, says allergist Rezarta Hoxha.

From the data of hospital visits for Librazhd and Përrenjas hospitals, the number of patients with asthmatic bronchitis has increased significantly, this is a consequence of not providing heating at home, air pollution or the use of cold water for bathing.

“Many Librazhdiots and Elbasanas use firewood as a means of heating, but it is more expensive than electricity. The price of firewood has become more expensive, plus you will calculate the transportation, cutting, sawing, systemization, as well as the pollution of the environment and the health of the citizens who are heated. Most residents don’t even have filters for their fireplaces, not filtering the smoke coming out of the chimneys. Plus, I have had many experiences with families that have a lot of air currents in the house and use a lot of biomass to heat and the rooms are not warm because they have old doors and windows that are not thermally insulated. I don’t know when this culture will change, but I can say that most people don’t do calculations well,” said Ferro, a wood stove dealer from Librazhd.

The majority of rural families in the area of ​​Librazhd and Prrenjasi suffer from energy poverty, many times higher than the European average of 5%. This leads them to use wood to heat their homes, directly affecting their health and environmental pollution.

A report by the European Environmental Agency estimated that air pollution caused more than 30,000 premature deaths in 2019 in the six countries of the Western Balkans.

In the first two-year updated report for Albania by UNDP (United Nations Development Program) it is stated, “Air pollution affects our health and the oxygen we breathe. Most of all families in Albania use wood as a raw material for heating, negatively affecting their health.

The economy of Albanian families is the weakest since the pandemic period

According to the Bank of Albania’s Consumer Confidence survey for the month of April, most households have stated that their financial situation has worsened over the past 12 months.

The increase in prices, especially those of the food basket, has worsened the finances of Albanian families. In April, for example, inflation, which measures the change in prices of a certain basket goods, jumped to 6.2% compared to the same month a year ago.

Of course, this increase seems to have hit families with a low budget more. The opposite is the situation for families with high incomes. Data from the Bank of Albania show an improvement in expectations for large purchases for cars, house purchases, or home reconstruction.

Furthermore, the Electricity Distribution Operator OSHE reports a significant increase in bills not paid on time by consumers if we compare it with the same period a year ago. According to the January-March 2021 figures, OSHEE collected late interest for 25 percent of the invoices issued, where out of the 2.8 million that were issued, 724,000 resulted in late payments.

Financial situation of Albanian families in the last 12 months. Source: Bank of Albania

Law 116/2016 on the energy performance of buildings, light years away in rural areas…

The National Methodology for Calculation of Energy Performance of Buildings is used to calculate the level of energy consumption in accordance with the energy performance requirements of buildings, units and elements of buildings, in order to evaluate and complete energy performance certificates. It must take into consideration and adapt to the legislation in force for buildings and the legislation of the European Union.

The energy performance of a building should be determined based on the calculated energy or the actual annual energy that has been consumed, in order to meet the different needs, and should reflect the energy needs for heating and cooling to maintain the temperature conditions of the building and hot water needs.

In 95% of the cases of those interviewed in rural areas, most of the residents said that they heard for the first time of law 116/2016 “On the energy performance of buildings” and had no idea about the obligations it brings. This fact highlighted that in Albania pensioners and single parents as well as families from rural areas find it more difficult to provide heating in their homes. Due to low disposable income, households in energy poverty own inefficient appliances that contribute to increased energy demand and thus energy poverty.

Measures to implement low-cost energy efficiency advice, including for example the installation of simple and low-cost energy efficiency measures, find little implementation.

“From the surveys conducted in 5 villages of Elbasan district, I was impressed that some families were not able to properly heat their houses, even though they were employed. What touched me most was the fact that most of the construction typologies of their private houses were very simple, although they bought many cubic meters of wood or biomass for heating, this was not efficient as the house inside and outside was uninsulated bringing in a lot of air currents. This left the villagers even further marginalized”, said Florenc Allmuça, one of the surveyors engaged in the national study on Energy Poverty.

Citizens feel unprotected and without a plan of measures in the face of Energy Poverty

In most cases, in rural areas, we came across low-quality plastic and wood houses. As in the photo above, in the family of Mrs. Tahire Balla, in the Shkumbini Librazhd neighborhood, the monthly energy bill was very high. Conscious, Tahiri, who does not have the financial means to buy energy-saving household appliances or to insulate her home, says that she feels disadvantaged and forgotten by the local and central government.

She expresses with indignation that there is no protective measures for marginalized groups such as those living in rural areas, the unemployed, as well as Roma and Egyptian families. Also, the increase in the price of oil and wood (today a cubic meter of wood sells for up to 6,000 Lek from 4,000 Lek, in the previous years) has led to the increased use of energy, emphasizing the survival gap and increasing energy poverty in rural areas.

After Kosovo, Albania is the country with the most energy poverty in the region

But how do we stand compared to the countries of the region or our neighbor, North Macedonia?

At least 37% of Albanians suffer from energy poverty, much higher than the European average of 5%, according to a study by the energy institutes DOOR and EIHP, which addresses energy poverty in countries that are members of the Energy Community Secretariat.

Lack of heating is what drives poor families to use wood to heat their homes, directly affecting their health. Among the nine countries examined by the report, Kosovo has the largest share of families living in energy poverty with 40%. In second place comes Albania with 37%, followed by North Macedonia with 33%, Serbia with 22% and Montenegro with 15%, says the study.