by Ana Stojilovska (Central European University)
Energy poverty tends to get marginalised in policy dialogues about a just energy transition, argues Ana Stojilovska, a PhD Candidate at the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy, CEU, Budapest, where her research is focused on the synergies between heating and energy poverty. Stojilovska is making the case for energy poverty to become a central focus of the process and points to the Ombudsman as a potential institutional ally for citizen initiatives pursuing the topic in North Macedonia.
“Electricity is too expensive (…) electricity utilities put huge pressure on the population who use their services; they often break the law, meaning they will disconnect you from electricity because of unpaid bills; they constantly increase the price… ” a family I interviewed back in 2017 told me. They had problems covering their electricity bill in winter due to the additional use of electricity for heating. This statement sums it up clearly: energy poverty can easily become the neglected side of just transition.
Researchers have been trying to improve the quality of the transition design process, by adding focus on tackling energy poverty, that is, the inability of households to meet their energy needs. Luckily, the EU has been following suit, by recognizing in the European Green Deal the need for a socially just energy transition.
Energy poverty is part and parcel of the daily struggles of every third household in North Macedonia. About one third of North Macedonia’s population cannot keep their dwellings adequately warm, and about the same number of people have arrears on utility bills. Among the factors contributing to this state are the widely spread material deprivation, the low dwelling quality, and the long-term and high unemployment rates in the country. However, energy price hikes have been possibly the most decisive factor.
In August 2012, after an 18% increase in the electricity price and a 15% increase in the district heating price, many citizens took to the streets to protest the high prices. The protests were organized by the citizen initiative AMAN, who argued: “…electricity, oil/gas, and heating prices must be adapted to the standards of living of the majority of the people of Macedonia. If we must pay for electricity, heating, and gas…the state should make it so that everyone is able to afford it, without cutting back on other basic needs…We believe the most appropriate way to achieve this is for the state to invest in domestic renewable and clean energy sources like solar, geothermal, wind power, etc. which must not be owned by a private corporation.”
Citizens, therefore, have been demanding energy democracy rather than a monopoly-driven transition process.
The citizens’ group followed up by submitting a draft law to the Parliament. Backed up by 13,169 signatures, residents demanded a cheaper daily electricity tariff and the release from the obligation to pay the basic fee for district heating after disconnection. Even though the draft law failed to be passed then, two demands were approved a few years ago under a different government. The Parliament debate included diverse opinions on the energy transition. Some members of Parliament called upon the EU to back their neo-liberal arguments that a cheap daily tariff is inconsistent with a liberalised market (at the time, there was no full liberalisation). Other members of Parliament attacked the Energy Regulatory Commission, claiming that it approved an enormous increase of operation costs of utilities that affect the electricity price, because the increase was caused by the employment of political party supporters and the purchase of expensive vehicles for staff. It was more than a discussion about affordable energy, but also about a democratic environment, just laws, and accountable institutions.
Civil society organisations and activists are vocal actors pressing governments to take concrete steps towards a just transition. But, in North Macedonia, it’s worth paying attention as well to a new potential ally in this process: the Ombudsman. As an independent institution, it safeguards human rights and protects citizens from the misuse of power by institutions. The annual reports of the Ombudsman are a comprehensive and a rich source of information about the misuse of monopoly power by energy companies, and the weak social system unable to offer an adequate protection to citizens. Put differently, the reports have been documenting how citizens are being relegated exclusively to the role of consumers who only need to pay their energy bills, while being heavily punished if they can’t. But monopolies break the law and go unpunished.
The 2020 Ombudsman report, for example, states: “EVN [the electricity utility] has not shown to be a socially responsible company during the pandemic because it disconnected families who have pupils participating in school online from electricity.”
Along similar lines, the annual report for 2019 reads: “The reduced purchase power and the difficult financial situation of citizens are the reason for their inability to pay their utility bills…The most vulnerable categories are not adequately protected.”
In essence, the Ombudsman keeps reporting on the same transgressions year after year. That also means that the policy impact of the Ombudsman remains limited – the highlighting of those illegalities has so far not resulted in a change in those companies’ actions.
At the European level, civil society is advocating for the idea of a “right to energy”. A concrete definition and practical application are still up for debate, but the most basic understanding is that it should protect citizens from getting disconnected from energy sources. Some argue this should be more than just a consumer right – it should be a human right. Thankfully, there is considerable debate happening nowadays about citizen access to affordable energy. While citizens have demonstrated that they can mobilise to demand positive change, they need institutional allies: in North Macedonia, the Ombudsman can be such an ally.
A just transition requires a social transformation of the current system, whose functioning results in energy poverty. The Ombudsman has the potential to be a powerful ally in the pathway to a socially just transition, but it needs to be recognized by the civil society as such, and be used more effectively to voice energy injustices.
Photo: Citizens protesting against energy price increases in front of the Parliament – source Aman.