No more burning furniture, solar energy heats the homes of the poor

Heating and hot crèches are not the norm in some Hungarian rural areas. As part of the “Felzárkózó Települések” (Upgrading Towns and Villages) program, social solar power plants are to be built in 300 disadvantaged localities across the country. Families with young children will benefit from the energy and be able to get through the cold and harsh winters.

Poverty in Hungary means that many people live hand to mouth. Their lives depend on these grants. When these run out, despair reigns. When the wood runs out, the villagers start burning whatever they can. Winter is the hardest time when it’s below freezing outside and small children’s rooms are left unheated. The Social Power Plant programme, coordinated by the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (HCSOM) and E.ON, has already been deployed in a Hungarian village, Tiszabő. The program provides heaters to families in need.

The radiators are connected to secure electrical sockets and prepayment meters have been installed by E.ON in the households covered by the program. The HCSOM uses all the energy generated by the solar power plant to recharge the meters of the families chosen to participate in the program.

Renewable energy is a safe and healthy alternative

old stove placed in the kitchen

In the poorest communities, almost everything is burned for heating. Even trash, rags or plastic. The smoke can settle in the room and cause serious health problems for both children and adults. “The risk of developing asthma, other respiratory diseases, or cancer is much higher,” as the Social Heat and Power website states.

One day wWe delivered a bed, wardrobe and kitchen furniture to a family. I asked them how all the furniture was gone. They just looked at me and said: we burned them. Everything burned down, there were only 2 beds left in the house,” says Krisztina Tasi, HCSOM program manager in Tiszabő.

How it works?

social worker walks between solar panels
The solar power plant near Tiszabő. Photo: Árpád Majoros, Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat

The social solar power plant was built on 0.6 hectares of land on the outskirts of Tiszabő, not far from residential housing. It produces around 400 MWh of electricity per year from its 1157 solar panels. This energy is distributed to the homes of families in need.

“On the 20th of every month, we charge the families’ prepayment meters, which basically means that they have to prepay their electricity bills. This is the second winter that we are going through with the help of the solar power plant. Therefore, families understand and know what this supplement of 20,000 HUF (52 EUR) is for. They know how to adjust a heater to make it profitable,” says Krisztina Tasi.

It is important not to overload the power source by connecting the refrigerator, TV and heater at the same time. When the heater starts, its wattage consumption is much higher. Until it warms up, it is even better to turn off the TV for a few minutes.

Debt spiral

Before the solar plant, there were very high levels of electricity theft in the village. Underground cables have since been installed on 30 properties, which cannot be dug up by villagers. This has significantly reduced the frequency of flights. Krisztina points out that “the power given to them has an important role to play in pulling families out of the spiral of debt”.

This spiral of debt begins when families are unaware of their energy use and start wasting it. The absence or poor quality of insulation and windows, as well as inefficient heating methods, mean that even minimal comfort can only be achieved with a proportionally much higher expenditure of energy. “The prepayment meter makes consumption more predictable for families and they accumulate less debt,” says Krisztina.

How much help is that?

There are about 150 families in Tiszabő with children aged 0-3 years old, but solar energy can only be supplied to 70-80 families. They are selected each year according to the extent of their needs. Krisztina Tasi explains: “We consult a lot of people who know the village and the families well. For example, with the doctor, the head of the children’s home and the social workers who work throughout the village. Everyone can vote for the families they think could use the extra help the most. »

Eligibility may change from year to year. Krisztina and I visited families who had received heaters through the program. They found the warm radiators a tangible and huge relief during the winter months. Kati, for example, received the heater 4 months ago when her baby boy with bone cancer was in serious condition. Unfortunately, she lost it on Christmas Eve. Kati says, “It helps me a lot, I have 4 other grandchildren to take care of.”

Angelika, a few houses away, was nursing her baby when we arrived. The door was neatly covered with a blanket to keep the heat from escaping the room. Angelika also nodded when I asked about the usefulness of the heater. “We all sleep in this room, me, my partner and the three children,” she said.

Finally, we knocked on the door of Erika’s family. It was the fullest and busiest household. It was lunchtime and we were greeted by the curious eyes of 6-7 small children. In the room heated by a radiator, a baby was sleeping in a pram. “Usually we only turn it on at night, that’s when we need it the most,” says grandmother Erika.

woman waves to the camera in front of her house
Erika waves in front of her house. Photo: Zsuzsi Palotas

The upgrade price

The Social Power Plant project plays a very important role in getting out of despair and fuel poverty. In addition, the Hungarian charity service is constantly striving to educate residents about the value of energy and the safe use of electrical equipment. They believe in teaching and encouraging people to save money and inspire them to adopt sustainable financial ways of thinking.

In most cases, a complete rewiring of homes would be required to install a modern heating system. However, this costs almost half a million forints (1,300 euros) per accommodation. With a gross monthly salary of just 100,000 HUF (260 EUR), there is no choice but, as Krisztina puts it, “just to survive”.

However, some families have installed central heating. Efforts are obviously being made to create better conditions. Men work in construction to be able to invest in modern heating for their families.

“But the most difficult thing is that they have no insurance or safety net. At the beginning of November last year, there was an accident that killed three people. Three fathers died, leaving behind a total of 12 children. The mothers had been left alone, so we helped them warm up,” says Krisztina Tasi.

Read next: Small solar power plant helps freshwater producers access affordable electricity and heat

About Oscar L. Smith

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