“Avoiding False and Unfair Solutions” at the “Right to Energy Forum” 2023

Roland Kulke, transform! europe´s facilitator, and Mònica Guiteras Blaya, from Enginyeria Sense Fronteres, report on the jointly organised panel “Avoiding False and Unfair Solutions” at the Right to Energy Forum, which took place on 23 February.

The Right to Energy Forum is the central annual European event on the right to adequate energy for all. This human right is endangered by numerous challenges, but especially by the neo-liberal deregulations and privatisations over the last decade, and often not least by the disregard of the fate of poorer sections of the European population.

This year, the forum had a special function, as financial speculations, energy restructurings under largely neo-liberal hegemony and Russia’s war against Ukraine have led to an explosion of energy costs. For two days, activists from across Europe discussed in a hybrid session how to secure the basic human right to energy.

transform! europe’s participation in this year’s forum included an online event, co-organised with Enginyeria Sense Fronteres, to discuss the political implications and dangers of the energy transition.

Marisa Matias (The Left Group in the EP, Bloco, MEP) spoke about the energy campaign of the Left Group in the EP. The campaign is called "Power to the People" and was initiated before Russia started the war in 2022. In the EU we have a "fraudulent energy market" based on decades of deregulation, resulting in the marginalist pricing model. The result is that cheap energy can be sold at the price of more expensive fossil fuels. The struggle against windfall profits and the current market model must be at the heart of current ambitions. The big European gas oligopolies made profits of at least €4bn in the first 6 months of 2021. Shell made its highest profit in eight years in 2021, an increase of 193% compared to 2020. On the other hand, the common people are struggling to pay their bills and we see rising rates of energy poverty across Europe. Before the crisis, 50 million people were living in energy poverty in 2019 – long before the war started! During the Covid19 crisis, this number went through the roof when prices rose in October 2021. Electricity prices in the EU are regulated by a directive related to the common rules of the electricity market. The "marginal model" must be changed, but so far the EU Commission’s proposals are insufficient. The demands of the Left in the EP are:

a) democratic control of the energy sector with the breaking up of the oligopolies,
b) acceleration of a socially just energy transformation,
c) the market system must be changed, and
d) energy must become a human right.

People should not choose between eating and heating. We need short-term solutions for people now!

Josep Babot (Alliance against Energy Poverty) reviewed, one by one, the main measures promoted by the Spanish government to alleviate the effects of energy poverty and high energy prices, from the perspective of a grassroots movement basically formed by families affected by energy poverty. This grassroots perspective allows us to take a close look at how laws and policies are implemented in practice, from people’s first-hand experience.

Despite the adoption of some unprecedented measures, such as a moratorium on electricity, gas and water disconnections since 2020, many of these mechanisms have serious shortcomings that prevent them from being 100% effective. At the same time, some measures are able to protect or guarantee rights in emergencies or in the short term, but they are not able to confront the multimillionaire profits of the big energy companies at the expense of people’s dignity.

In Spain, 14% of the population can’t keep their homes at an adequate temperature, but only 1.2 million people are covered by the social bonus (rebate) and protection against energy supply cut-offs, while the potential number of people who could benefit is more than twice as high. This clearly excludes the vast majority of people from protection. The mechanism also does not address the issue of indebtedness, nor does it cover other household services such as water or gas, a source of energy on which many energy-poor households still have to rely on.

The main shortcomings include excessive bureaucracy to guarantee rights, the issue of unresolved accumulated debts, non-automated measurements, limits on subsidised consumption that do not take into account the structural energy inefficiency of the majority of vulnerable households, and the lack of data to enable evaluation.

Other protective measures include the Iberian exemption, which has opened a window to the marginal market, and the gas cap, giving responsibility to the large distributors, which affects people’s bills and will certainly be taken to court by these companies.

Gala Kabbaj (transform! europe) analysed the French climate movements: who is mobilising, how and for what purpose? In 2018, two movements took to the streets in France: the yellow vests and the climate movement, which had already taken to the streets a month earlier. These two movements had, and still have, a common political sequence. They emerged at the same time.

The dominant rhetoric spread by mainstream politicians and media tries to separate these two movements – pitting them against each other as opponents. This discourse tries to establish the narrative of two social and ideological blocs, sometimes even as if they belonged to two opposing Frances.

The climate movement was a movement of a sector of the upper classes ( executives, cultural and educational workers, often living in big cities and politically anchored on the left of the political spectrum). The social composition of the yellow vest movement was quite different: Workers and employees, with a clear gender divide in terms of sector of activity: the sector most represented by women yellow vests was the care sector, while among men it was the logistics sector. These two sectors are marked by a strong fragmentation with a high proportion of temporary contracts. Irregular working hours in these sectors lead to high car dependency, as public transport does not operate during night shifts or early morning hours. This dependency is compounded by the fact that yellow vest activists tend to live in rural and suburban areas.

While this rhetoric reflects sociological realities, it neglects several elements and fails to seize the political opportunity arising from the coexistence of these two social movements.

There have been successful convergences between the two movements. These convergences led to the creation of the slogan "End of the Month, End of the World – Same Fight", which embodies the desire not to be in opposition to each other. The climate movement quickly abandoned the concept of individual change in favour of systemic demands, and the Yellow Vests expressed a will for ecology, on condition that it is democratically decided, and insisted on fiscal and social justice.

Andrea Masullo analysed the new right-wing government in Italy. At the moment, the Italian company ENI (the Italian state owns more than 30% of its shares!) is continuing with its core business, with barely any attention paid to climate change mitigation goals. The current right-wing government has shifted EU projects from transportation infrastructure to focus on energy. On a recent visit to Algeria, Prime Minister Meloni and ENI President Descalzi signed an agreement to supply natural gas to Italy, to make Italy a gas hub for the entire Europe. Meloni said this would make the energy supply for Italy and Europe more secure and independent. It is hard to see how making Italy and Europe more reliant on another politically hot area will create more stability.

Southern Italy is one of the most favoured regions for solar energy, and Italy is also one of the most favoured regions in the world for geothermal energy. This could potentially make Italy energy independent and able to export electricity. ENI has the experience and knowledge to exploit the liquid reservoirs in Tuscany, which cover the 2% of total national energy demand. But the entire Appenine chain from north to south, including Sicily, has a potential of 500 Mtoe, 300% of the total national demand; and this permanently, which makes it a renewable reservoir. If we take into account the dry rocks with a temperature of more than 100°C that exist in the same area at a depth of between 3,000 and 5,000 metres, the potential will be 9,000 times the national energy demand. ENI has the knowledge to exploit this enormous resource, making Italy completely independent, and also to use electricity to produce hydrogen for industry as well as for rail and sea transportation. All this potential would allow Italy to easily achieve carbon neutrality before 2050. But Meloni and ENI prefer to do business with fossil fuels.

In the debate that followed the session, several questions were raised, such as What is the EU’s actual plan to respond to this situation, apart from responses at member state level? Since moving a pipeline from North to South is not going to change the paradigm, how can we go a little further on the urgent issues of climate emergency and just energy transition? There was consensus on the importance of public ownership of the energy market and the importance of different scales or levels, such as the Member State level, but also the huge impact that EU policies can have on people’s lives. A few other measures were also discussed, such as taxing the windfall profits of the big energy companies, as well as banning power cuts and a minimum broadband for energy.

In summary, we need to end the over-consumption of the polluters and not only hold them accountable, but also create a countervailing power that aligns political priorities with the needs of people and the planet, without blaming or leaving behind the (energy)poor.

Click here to review the full session.