Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Energy spending and household poverty

There is broad agreement that energy, especially polluting energy, is too cheap, calling for higher energy taxes. The problem is that such taxes are believed to be highly regressive, as poor households spend a larger share of their income on energy for transportation, heating and cooling. Of course, this could be alleviated by an appropriate redistribution of the proceeds, but to do this properly one first needs to understand well the energy spending of poor households.

Tooraj Jamasb and Helena Meier do this for the United Kingdom. There, households that spend more than 10% of their income on energy are considered "fuel poor" and deemed as having difficulties heating their home. I have always been suspicious of such definitions, as one may choose to spend more to heat at higher temperatures, for example, without being considered at risk. But this definition may indeed capture a good portion of the households of interest. While Jamasb and Meier find the usual conclusions (fuel poor households are poor, have children or are retired, spend more time at home), they also put high hope in smart meters. By showing current energy consumption, they hope that these meters will trigger behavioral changes and in particular help so far ill-informed households manage better the available energy and look for energy efficiency. As so often, good information goes a long way in managing scarcity.

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