When Mari Carmen Gómez had electricity back in her house, she couldn’t stop turning the switch on and off. He was afraid of being left in the dark again. He had been unable to pay his bills and the electric company had cut off his electricity and gas. “It left such an impression on me that I remember I spent a week flipping the switch.”
Mari Carmen lives in Cubellas, a town south of Barcelona, and is one of the faces of energy poverty in Spain.
A reality suffered by 11% of the country’s homes, a total of 5.1 million people unable to keep their homes at an adequate temperature, according to a study by the Environmental Sciences Association (ACA). 5% have gone through the same situation as Mari Carmen: the power has been cut off at some point in their life, according to a study by the Organization of Consumers and Users of Spain (OCU).
Spain is one of the European countries with the highest electricity prices, according to Eurostat data, a list topped by countries with higher average wages such as Germany, Denmark and Belgium.
The escalation of electricity prices, which reached a new historical record at the beginning of October with 288 euros per megawatt hour, and the economic ravages of the coronavirus pandemic make more and more Spanish households vulnerable to this situation. Consumers have seen their annual spending on the electricity bill increase by more than 150 euros compared to the previous year.
To this is added, according to experts, a lack of basic knowledge about the energy market and its rights.
“There is uncertainty and a lack of information in a democratized way so that all citizens can make their own decisions regarding their public services and their bills,” Mònica Guiteras from the Alliance against Energy Poverty (APE) explains to Euronews. “This is causing a lot of pain and a lot of precariousness in terms of access to energy.”
Founded in 2014, in Barcelona, the APE is a social movement that aims to defend universal access to basic water and energy services. One of its main actions is collective advice.
Mari Carmen says that the day the electricity and gas were cut off was a Friday. He remembers because it meant that he had to wait until Monday to ask for emergency help from social services.
“They didn’t give me any solution.” Unemployed and with a single monthly income of 300 euros due to disability, Mari Carmen says that she exposed her case to a social worker who did not inform her of her rights. Then he went to the APE. “She was the one who told me about the vulnerability report and that there was a law in Catalonia that covered the costs of the companies.”
In addition to the fear of touching the switch and not having a light, Mari Carmen also says that she has been marked by “merciless harassment” by the company that supplied her electricity.
“It was a very hard year because there were daily calls, five or six phone calls threatening me that they were going to take me to trial and even court letters,” he says. Then the APE advised her again: “You can be calm because this letter has no judicial value, it is to continue scaring you.”
Now Mari Carmen is part of the platform and shares her experience. “People affected by energy policy come to explain their own case and others affected can also share what they are experiencing,” says Guiteras. “We learned it from the movement for housing, from the platform against evictions in Barcelona.”
Mari Carmen says that the fact of being accompanied or informed to the appointment with social services can change everything. “You have to go with the lesson learned,” he testifies.
Only one in three people benefits from social bonds or aid from the Government of Spain to which they would potentially be entitled, according to figures from the OCU.
Enrique García, from the Institutional Relations Department of this organization, explains to Euronews that this figure is the result of bureaucratic difficulties and the income requirements that are required to access the bonus. An example of the obstacles to achieving this is that they ask for the income statement from the previous year, he points out, and if the person has been unemployed, they cannot present it.
“Energy poverty is no longer a matter for only four or five people who have little income,” says Mari Carmen Gómez. “Even a person who has a job, and receives a half decent payroll, is seeing that it is very difficult for him to reach the end of the month.”
While electricity prices seem to be flat in Spain, Guiteras says that many families are using electricity or gas below their needs for fear of not being able to afford the next bill.