Cold plate by candlelight

Growing energy poverty in Germany

We only notice how much we depend on electricity in everyday life when it is missing. The lights go out, the TV, radio, PC, washing machine and telephone don’t work, and often the water stays cold and the stove is off. Anyone who heats with electricity or whose district heating is electrically controlled is not only sitting in the dark, but also in the cold. Der Bochumer Steffen Fleischmann* hat unfreiwillig erlebt, was es heibt, ohne Strom auskommen zu mussen. Stadtwerke Bochum cut off his electricity supply because of an unpaid claim from the year-end bill. Tobias Muller* from Bottrop has also been living without electricity since March 2007 because the energy supplier ELE disconnected him from the grid due to a backlog.

The two are not alone. In Germany, electricity and gas suppliers disconnect more than two percent of connections every year. This was the result of a survey of 23 municipal utility managers by Hanseatische Inkasso Treuhand (HIT) and the consultancy Nordsan. Extrapolated, this means that around 840.000 households per year are affected. In North Rhine-Westphalia alone, energy suppliers disconnected electricity an estimated 130,000 times in 2007.000 times the electricity was disconnected.

According to the Federal Statistical Office, consumer prices for electricity in January 2008 were almost 46 percent higher than eight years ago. The sharp increase mainly affects low-income households. In the case of households receiving unemployment benefit II (ALG II) or social assistance, the job center or social welfare office pays the housing and heating costs, insofar as they are reasonable. What is considered "reasonable" is interpreted differently at local level. Often the authorities only grant flat rates: usually one or two euros for heating costs per square meter of living space. Electricity costs for household energy have to be paid by the tenants themselves and must be paid from the standard rate of currently 347 euros (from 1.07.2008 351 Euro) will be managed. It provides just 25 euros for household energy. Low-income earners and recipients of unemployment benefit II are increasingly threatened with an energy cut-off.

In the case of Tobias Muller it was "only" 178 euros that he had to pay in arrears, in the case of Steffen Fleischmann 250 euros. The electricity block threatens with outstanding amounts from 100 euros. Jobcenter and Sozialamter can take over electricity debts as a loan on application, but they usually do not do so. "One is ashamed, after all, one has brought oneself into the situation," says unemployed bricklayer and Hartz IV recipient Steffen Fleischmann. "I was embarrassed," Tobias Muller also reports. Nach der zweiten Mahnung stand der Stromsperrer vor der Tur – kurz vor dem Wochenende. A few days without electricity is the most effective way to get sucky customers to pay up – if they can find the money.

Out of shame and lack of money, many settle into a life without electricity. "In the short term one helps oneself with candles. In winter months, you go to bed early," says Steffen Fleischmann. "The food in my refrigerator went bad.0. Andreas Pfeiffer cooked and showered at his girlfriend’s house, and was allowed to tap the neighbor’s electricity for the washing machine. Some powerless people secretly draw electricity from the household or make do with dangerous constructions. Again and again accidents occur, because people help themselves in their need with burning candles, spirit stoves or gas radiators.

ALG II recipients cannot afford new and therefore energy-efficient household appliances. In the past, the social welfare office granted one-time subsidies for the purchase of such appliances. But since the introduction of Hartz IV, a monthly flat rate of 37.50 euros has been included in the standard rate for this. "Saving is impossible in the Hartz IV-Bezug", explains Wolfgang Kutta of the Protestant Social Counseling Bottrop (ESB). The social worker considers the current system to be a failure: "How can you put money aside when the standard rate is far too low??"

Another problem: The longer one waits, the higher the bill with the electricity supplier, the energy debts grow. In the case of Hartz IV recipient Tobias Muller, an arrears of 178 euros turned into 420 euros due to reminder fees, payer removal and reinstallation.

Social tariffs for low earners?

This makes a problem in Germany what has long been known in other countries: energy poverty. What is meant is the lack of access to adequate, affordable and environmentally friendly energy. In Great Britain, fuel poverty has been an ie for many years. According to the official definition, someone is considered to be in energy poverty if they spend more than ten percent of their household income on energy – in the UK, this means more than 4.4 million households. In Germany there is neither such a definition nor a statistic. The problem also does not appear in the German government’s poverty and wealth reports.

The privatization of municipal utilities and the liberalization of the electricity market in Germany have not only created an oligopoly of four large corporations. The supply of electricity has also been removed from the political and democratic influence of local parliaments. This means that the possibility of enforcing social standards is dwindling.

Since the beginning of 2008, there have been discussions in Germany about the introduction of social tariffs for people on low incomes. Politicians and the energy industry are shifting the responsibility for this back and forth between themselves. "According to the state government, securing the energy supply in the event of a household’s inability to pay is not the task of the respective basic supplier, but is to be regulated by state transfer payments," says NRW Economics Minister Christa Thoben (CDU). In the report of the NRW state parliament’s commission of inquiry on the effects of sharply rising energy prices in the long term, the governing parties CDU and FDP recommend in their majority vote that low-income households should skip heating in winter: "In the short term, tenants can react … by lowering the room temperature, by refraining from fully heating individual rooms, etc."

While some regional energy suppliers such as Rhein-Energie in Koln, Stadtwerke Bonn or Eon Bayern offer social tariffs, NRW’s largest energy company ELE has rejected the demand for a social tariff for low-income earners. Social counseling centers and consumer centers sound the alarm that the problem of energy poverty will become even worse. At present, electricity suppliers do not check the solvency of their new customers in advance, for example by means of a SCHUFA report. But that is only a question of time. Already, energy arrears, along with rent debts, are the main reasons why people lose their homes.

In Great Britain, electricity meters have been installed on a large scale, but this has not made energy any cheaper for the poor. On the contrary, they often pay even more than normal consumers, because they cannot switch to cheaper tariff models. Therefore also there for some time uber flat-covering social tariffs is discussed. Exploding energy prices have more than doubled the number of "energy poor" since 2003.

In Belgium, on the other hand, those on low incomes can claim 500 kilowatt hours of electricity a year for free. There is also a certain amount of gas for free. The German Energy Consumers Association is proposing a similar model for Germany: Each household should be able to obtain 1.000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year free of charge. In the event of electricity debts, the connection should not be cut off, but only throttled. If a customer is unable to pay the bill, the utility would be allowed to limit the power supply to 125 watts or 0.6 amps. With it one can still telephone, a Gluhbirne burn let or the heating operate.

Steffen Fleischmann got electricity again after five days, for which he borrowed money from relatives. Tobias Muller had to wait 15 months before the lights came back on, which is how long it took him to pay off his backlog.

* Names changed

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