Solar for the EU's Poor, but No Budget

The European Commission wants to boost energy efficiency and use of renewables among low-income households, but hasn't allocated any funding

The European Commission on Wednesday (3 December) announced that low-income Europeans are set to win new financing for solar panels attached to their homes, better insulation in their walls and fit their windows with double-glazing, but ultimately no new funds have been attached to the proposal.

As part of its proposed stimulus package to boost the union's wilting economy, the EU executive said it would co-finance national and local schemes investing in energy efficiency and renewable energy measures in poor households.

But despite the fanfare, there will be no new EU spending. The move is simply a rule change that potentially unblocks obstacles to existing funds being spent on such refurbishments.

"There is no additional EU spending," regional policy spokesperson Dennis Abbott told EUobserver.

Buildings are the source of 40 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, but it is regularly difficult for poorer individuals to afford the initial investment on energy efficiency refurbishments, even though in the long run, they would save money through reduced gas and electricity bills.

At the same time, it is frequently poor people who live in cold, energy inefficient homes.

"This is a win-win measure," said Danuta Huebner, regional policy commissioner, at the announcement of the new measures, which also cover the building of mini wind turbines.

"It will save energy, cut emissions, bring down fuel bills for the most vulnerable in society and help the construction industry and small businesses in particular."

Current EU legislation allows member states to use monies from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) for housing, but only for those parts of a building that are in common use and that are situated in deprived urban areas.

The new proposal would change these rules, permitting the use of ERDF monies for all of a building and throughout the EU so long as such moves targeted low-income households.

"The proposal of the commission is a change to the European Regional Development Fund eligibility rules in order to permit the fund to support interventions in housing in all member states," Mr Abbott said.

The National Energy Foundation, a UK-based educational charity encouraging the development of renewable energy and energy efficiency, broadly welcomed the move, but criticised the lack of funds..

"What is especially good is the extension of the scope of measures to target low-income homes, but I'm worried that this is mainly a change in the rules rather than any new funding - it's just coming from existing structural funds," said Ian Byrne, the deputy director of the charity.

He explained that very often, the worst households in terms of what he calls "fuel poverty" are old, isolated, often rural homes, which are not connected to cheaper forms of heating such as gas.

Real new funds for the refurbishment of such households would indeed benefit both the environment and the poorest in society, he said.

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