Photo: Majoros Árpád, Magyar Máltai Szeretetszolgálat
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Heating and warm nurseries are not standard in some of Hungary’s rural areas. Under the “Felzárkózó Települések” (Upgrading Towns and Villages) program, social solar power plants are planned to be built in 300 disadvantaged locations 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 a lot of people live from day to day. Their lives are reliant on these subsidies. When these run out, desperation reigns. When wood runs out, villagers start burning anything they can. Winter is the hardest time when it’s below zero degrees outside and small children’s rooms are left without heat. The Social Power Plant program, coordinated by the Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta (HCSOM) and E.ON, has already been rolled out in one Hungarian village, Tiszabő. The program is providing heaters for families in need.

The heaters are connected to secure power points and pre-payment meters have been installed by E.ON in households covered by the program. The HCSOM uses all the energy generated by the solar power plant to charge the meters for the families who have been chosen to participate in the program.

Renewable energy is a safe and healthy alternative

old stove placed in the kitchen
old stove placed in the kitchen

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

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

How does it work?

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

The Social Solar Power Plant has been built on 0.6 hectares of land on the outskirts of Tiszabő, not far from residential housing. It generates 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’ pre-payment meters, which basically means they have to pre-pay their electricity bills. This is the second winter that we have gone through with the help of the solar power plant. Therefore, the families understand and have experience with what this 20,000 HUF (52 EUR) top-up is enough for. They know how to adjust a heater to make it cost-effective,” says Krisztina Tasi.

It is important not to overload the power source by connecting the fridge, TV, and heater at the same time. When the heater starts up, it has a much higher watt consumption. Until it warms up, it’s even best to turn off the TV for a few minutes.

Debt spiral

Before the solar power plant, there were very high levels of theft of power in the village. Underground cables have since been installed at 30 properties, which can’t be dug up by the villagers. This has reduced the occurrence of theft enormously. Krisztina stresses that “the power that they are given has an important part to play in getting families out of the debt spiral.”

This debt spiral starts when families are unaware of their energy consumption and start to waste it. The lack or poor quality of insulation and windows, as well as the inefficient heating methods, mean that even minimum comfort can only be achieved with proportionately far higher expenditure on energy. “The pre-payment meter makes families’ consumption more predictable and they don’t accumulate as much debt,” says Krisztina.

How much help is it?

There are around 150 families in Tiszabő with children aged 0-3, but solar energy can only be provided to 70-80 families. They are selected each year based on the extent of their needs. Krisztina Tasi explains, “We consult with 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 working all over the village. Everyone can vote for those families they feel could use the extra help the most.”

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

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

Lastly, we knocked on the door of Erika’s family. This 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 warmed by a radiator, a baby was sleeping in a pram. “We usually only turn it on at night, that’s when we need it the most,” the grandmother Erika confides.

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

The price of upgrading

The Social Power Plant project plays a very important role in providing a way out of despair and energy poverty. In addition, the Hungarian Charity Service is constantly striving to raise awareness among locals about the value of energy and the safe use of electrical equipment. They believe it is important to teach and encourage people to save money and alert them to adopt sustainable financial ways of thinking.

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

However, some families have installed central heating. Efforts are clearly being made to create better conditions. Men are working in the construction industry so that they can invest in modern heating for their families.

“But the difficult thing is that they have no insurance and no safety nets. In early November last year, there was an accident that left three dead. Three fathers died, leaving a total of 12 children behind. The mothers were left all alone, so we helped them with the heating,” says Krisztina Tasi.

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

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