Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Death in the cold: Portugal’s problem with underheated homes


  • Almost a fifth of Portugal’s 10 million inhabitants are unable to adequately heat their homes, compared to the EU average of 6.9%.
  • They live in conditions that in the rest of Europe would not be acceptable today
  • The construction boom caused by mass migration to cities in the second half of the 20th century resulted in the construction of houses without good thermal insulation
  • The government predicts that it would cost almost EUR 8 billion to eliminate this phenomenon within 20 years
  • The country cannot afford such expenses, especially as public debt has increased dramatically due to spending on fighting the effects of the pandemic

Original article on POLITICO.eu website

Winter troubles are a common problem associated with poor-quality buildings that are not equipped to keep residents warm when outside temperatures drop. According to Eurostat data, almost a fifth of Portugal’s 10 million inhabitants are unable to adequately heat their homes. This is much more than the EU average of 6.9 percent.

– Portugal is one of the countries with a very large number of people suffering from energy poverty. People either spend a significant part of their income on heating or adapt to the situation, that is, they give up on it and sit in their apartments in overcoats, hats and gloves. They live in conditions that would not be acceptable in the rest of Europe today, said João Pedro Gouveia, of the Nova University’s Environmental Research Center in Lisbon.

As he says, the construction boom caused by mass migration to cities in the second half of the twentieth century resulted in the construction of houses without good thermal insulation, which was included in building regulations only in the 1990s.

– As a result, about 75 percent. of the 1.5 million buildings in Portugal that have energy certificates do not meet the requirements with regard to heat. We believe that the buildings without certification, and there are probably two-thirds of them, are in even worse condition, said Gouveia.

Electricity prices

Portugal has one of the highest electricity prices in the EU – 21 euro cents plus taxes and bills per kilowatt hour – and eighth place in the EU’s natural gas bill (6 euro cents per kWh). Therefore, heating energy-inefficient homes becomes an unattainable luxury for many in a country where the average wage is 970 euros.

– In well-insulated houses in the north of Europe, it is enough to turn on the radiator valve to keep it warm. But comfortable living in poorly built houses here requires the electric or oil heaters to be turned on all day, said Francisco Ferreira, chairman of the environmental organization Zero. – When a cold wave hit in January, people paid 240 euros a month with just one 200 watt heater on.

All this also makes it difficult for Portugal to meet its climate goals.

– We know that a significant part of Europe’s emissions come from buildings with low energy efficiency standards. This is especially evident in those homes where energy is constantly wasted. It is a great task to change the situation in this country, said Ferreira.

Insufficient help

Brussels tried to deal with the low energy efficiency in the EU by changing a number of regulations and implementing new strategies.

In 2018, as part of the Clean Energy for All Europeans package, the efficiency guidelines were revised. Last year’s renovation strategy set ambitious targets for the renovation of buildings and adopted recommendations to improve the living conditions of 34 million Europeans who cannot afford adequate heating.

After several decades of state indifference, Antonio Costa’s government has taken steps in this matter. Automatic reductions in electricity and gas bills for people on low incomes have been introduced. The newly adopted laws envisage investing EUR 300 million a year in improving insulation, so as to restore 69% of the total by 2050. buildings in the country.

But experts say these steps are unlikely to make much difference for the nearly 2 million Portuguese who are exposed to extreme cold in their homes each year.

– This is not a problem that can be solved with reductions, because in many cases no amount of energy spent will solve the problem – said Aline Guerreiro, head of the Sustainable Construction Portal, an initiative promoting best practices in the field of energy efficiency in buildings. – Investment strategies are unlikely to change the situation, because these are all co-financing projects, i.e. homeowners should invest money that they do not have.

– You would have to replace thin windows in aluminum frames, replace roofs, insulate walls. We are talking about sums that most Portuguese families cannot afford. It is unthinkable to convince all the inhabitants of the entire building to make such expenses, she said.

Guerreiro added that for many buildings, renovation is not a realistic option as it would be cheaper to build them from scratch.

According to the draft national strategy to combat energy poverty, which the government intends to announce this year, it would cost almost € 8 billion to eliminate it within 20 years.

Ferreira claims that the government is unable to allocate such an amount. Especially since the public debt has already increased significantly due to the pandemic that has hit Portugal hard. He fears that all efforts will not help the poorest and most vulnerable to the cold.

“Let’s be honest: under the current state of the law, only those who have money will benefit from them, such as renovating buildings to turn them into luxury rental properties,” Ferreira said.

An example from the past

Gouveia from the University of Lisbon said it was important to explain to people that the cost of insulating homes would pay off with lower heating bills.

– It would be wise for the government to take advantage of this opportunity and put a strong emphasis on renewable sources, for example introducing the principle of installing photovoltaics on the roofs of all renovated buildings – he said.

Guerreiro, in turn, hopes that future renovation and construction activities will be used to recreate the traditional architectural solutions used by previous generations.

– Traditional houses in the Alentejo region were once single-story, with thick walls and small windows, which kept the warmth in winter and cool in the summer heat. In the north, country houses were built to take advantage of the heat given off by livestock. Even the apartment blocks from the Salazar dictatorship were built to distribute the heat from the stove, she said.

– Today we are bearing the consequences of decades of using cheap materials, imported styles and projects that ignore the natural surroundings and climatic conditions. It would be good for us to regain at least some empirical knowledge from the past, building for a more sustainable future, she said.

Editing: Michał Broniatowski



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