Brett Hetherington

Banner photos: Cornelia Kraft

Let there be profits

 

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, July 2021.]

 

September 14, 2010, 5pm. I’m pacing in little circles outside an office on Carrer Igualada in Vilafranca del Penedes.

 I’m the last person in a queue.

There’s half a dozen people in front of me and we are waiting for the door to this electricity company to open. (Does it really matter which energy company? Is there any real difference between them?)

Finally, we are inside the tiny waiting room. The four seats are taken so I stand next to another customer. We are “esteemed clients” a sign on the wall says.

After 20 minutes I get a seat and after another 25 minutes I am sitting in front of a harassed employee named Xavier. We have come to know each other’s faces quite well over the last 6 weeks since I’ve had to persist in my visits there every week. He is always polite, sympathetic and vaguely sad. He shrugs a lot. I tap the bones under my eye. (They’re called sockets too aren’t they?)

November 2, 2010. The electricity in the house we bought (with a bank mortgage) in a small town near Vilafranca back in August is flicked into life. Here it’s called ‘la luce’ or ‘light.’ Let there be light. Please.

Fast forward almost a decade to May 4, 2020. A few months into the Covid emergency, this power company reports “a more than doubling of first-quarter net profit to 844 million euros compared with 363 million in the same period last year.”

January 2021. Media report: “Electricity bills increased by 26.7% in the first days of the year compared to the same period of 2020, according to consumers' rights association Facua.” This follows frequent power outages across Catalonia, with municipalities affected including Barcelona's lowest income neighbourhoods of Raval, Badalona and Torre Baró. 

June 5, 2021. A demonstration in the Catalan capital’s Plaça de Catalunya is in full voice. The gathered are protesting what they say is clearly going to be a jump in electricity prices coming from a new peak and off-peak billing system.  A media source says: “The increase could be 8.5% for some households but as high as 27.3% for others depending on the supplier.”

The Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU) is arguing that small households and businesses are likely to suffer the most. Those who work at home during the day (including this journalist) are also at risk of increased energy costs. Social media jokes about ironing after midnight don’t seem especially funny to me.

But a promise has been made. There will be “savings for 19 million consumers already on a plan without hourly rates.” To me, this is about as believable as their other promise. The 9 million customers who had hourly based pricing will supposedly now have their bills rise by only around €2 a month. 

What seems more probable to me is that with the Covid 19 pandemic starting to show signs of fading, the three big energy companies are using this time as a good excuse to create a so-called “new normal.” Apparently, normal service (ie. poor quality service) is to be resumed as soon as possible, except at higher prices for millions of consumers who are unable to afford it. 

There is of course a simple solution to the above. It’s called nationalisation. A government, elected by a majority of voters, runs an infrastructure system on behalf of all the population, for the populations’ sole benefit, not for investor profit. It would guarantee lower prices. 

Radical? I don’t think so. It’s been done plenty of times before.