Researcher's first project prompts new EU approach to fuel poverty

A Manchester PhD student’s early research has provided the European Union (EU) with a new tool for measuring fuel poverty and gathered European-wide momentum behind helping the 54 million European households that currently struggle to heat and power their homes.

Having gained her doctorate less than two years ago, Dr Harriet Thomson’s central role in changing the European Commission’s approach to fuel poverty has gained her the £10,000 award for Outstanding Early Career Impact in the 2017 Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Celebrating Impact Prize.

In 2016, fuel poverty (also known as energy poverty) affected more than 4.5 million UK households. Before Dr Thomson began her own PhD research in 2011, no recent European-wide figures for the problem existed.

"Living in fuel poverty is extremely stressful as well as bad for mental health and wellbeing," Dr Thomson points out. "Worrying about how to pay the next bill, feeling too ashamed to invite people into your home because it's damp and cold, rationing energy use for cooking or lighting – those are the kinds of issues many UK households face. But five years ago it wasn’t really seen as a major issue by the EU."

As part of her doctoral research, Dr Thomson devised a simple, visual, colour-coded ranking system of fuel poverty at the household level across EU member states. The index provides policymakers with new measures of the extent of fuel poverty and information on its causes in different countries.

The index, she says, helped change how EU decision-makers think about energy poverty. Prior to her research, EU opposition to defining and measuring energy poverty was high and gaps in knowledge about the extent of the problem were extensive.

Dr Thomson played a key role in changing attitudes. In 2011, she established the EU Fuel Poverty Network (EUFPN), now a leading online platform for information about fuel poverty, and a resource used by Members of the European Parliament. She has visited the European Parliament frequently, taking part in high-level policy debates with decision-makers at the European, national and local level. Her research featured in a 2016 UK House of Commons Library Briefing Paper, and an EU policy handbook, published by the Greens/European Free Alliance Group in the European Parliament. She also advised the Socialist and Democrats Group in the European Parliament on its 2016 Energy Poverty Manifesto, leading to a new European Parliament resolution.

New pan-European attitudes are demonstrated, she says, by the recent EU investment of more than €1 million in two new energy poverty studies and the launch of a new European Energy Poverty Observatory (EPOV).

Dr Thomson led the successful bid (consisting of 13 universities, think tanks and businesses across Europe) to run EPOV, and she now coordinates the three year project which aims to transform understanding about the extent of fuel poverty in Europe, and bring about innovative policies and practices to address the problem.

EPOV will be of great benefit to many people, from international bodies such as the UN, scientists, think-tanks, and national and supranational decision makers, to social and health care workers, advocacy groups and housing providers.
Dr Harriet Thomson

Praising Dr Thomson's achievements, Theresa Griffin, MEP, North West of England said: "Both Harriet’s Masters research and her associated PhD research to address the analytical gaps in policy and statistical understanding of fuel poverty have changed how energy poverty is considered at European level."

The judging panel for the ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize commended this year’s Outstanding Early Career Impact winner for the clear impact she has achieved: "For someone in the early stages of their career to achieve traction in the EU/EC policy arena is impressive," the panel commented.

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