Bulgaria’s energy regulator mulls reforms in the face of nationwide protests over high electricity bills

Faced with continuing public protests against high electricity and heating bills, Bulgaria’s energy regulator is discussing changes such as replacing old-style electricity meters with “smart” versions and requiring power distribution companies to meter electricity consumption according to fixed periods.

This emerged from statements by Economy, Energy and Tourism Minister Delyan Dobrev on February 12 2013, the third day on which a number of cities in Bulgaria saw protests about high power bills.

Dobrev attended technical checks that were follow-ups to complaints by electricity users.

However, he said that the checks would not solve the problem because in many cases it would turn out that the electricity meter was out of order and the device would have to be replaced by the power distribution company.

The most important step would be to install “smart” meters which would measure electricity consumption at 30-day intervals at precisely the same time of day each time a measurement was taken.

Andon Rokov, acting head of the State Energy and Water Regulatory Commission, said that the commission would require power distribution companies to fix a set period at which readings would be taken. This should be every 30 days, Rokov said.

He said that within a month, the regulator would start discussions on an overall change to the general conditions for the operations of power distribution companies in Bulgaria.

“One of the changes we will insist on is to set really short deadlines for written response to the claims filed by the subscribers. The power distribution companies should regain Bulgarian consumers’ trust,” Rokov said, as quoted by local news agency Focus, and described the recent protests against high electricity bills as justified.

“However, nationalisation of the companies is not possible in a country, which is member of the European Union,” he said.

Checks by the commission into the three power distribution companies – CEZ, Energo Pro and EVN – as well as the heating utility in Sofia are scheduled to be completed within about 10 days.

Meanwhile, in spite of claims that the heating and electricity price protests had no political links, the February 12 protest in Sofia was organised by ultra-nationalists Ataka and minority party VMRO, who will be acting together in Bulgaria’s July 2013 national parliamentary elections. For some months, the ultra-nationalists have campaigned for re-nationalisation of the energy distribution companies and the expulsion of the foreign owners from Bulgaria. These demands are the same as were heard from protesters in 15 cities and towns in Bulgaria on the first day of the protests, February 10.

The February 12 protest in Sofia drew a few hundred people, who gathered outside the commission’s head office.

Their stated demands included electricity charges being determined by taking into account subscribers’ financial means. The protesters said that if the government did not meet their demands, they would call for it to resign. Participants in the protest said that their utility bills were triple their incomes.

The regulatory commission also is due to discuss new rules for electricity trading, a document awaited by the European Commission as well as the major companies, consumers and electricity traders.

Dobrev said that the model used by the commission should be revised fully because at the moment it was “highly incorrect”.

He said that currently calculations were done on the basis of invoices without determining whether expenses really were determined by market prices.

Bulgarian-language media quoted Ombudsman Konstantin Penchev as saying that the explanations offered for the high bills were outrageous. He called on the three power distribution companies to carry out inspections and for explanations how bills were calculated.

At the outset of the protests, the official response to protests was that the billing period had been longer than usual because of the December holidays, the number of days off had meant people had spent more time at home, temperatures had been low and also the winter weather meant that the electricity price increases that came into effect in June 2012 really had been felt.

On February 11, President Rossen Plevneliev said that electricity bills would not fall if companies were nationalized, but through energy market liberalisation and energy efficiency.

Earlier, energy distribution companies said that customers facing high bills and who would have difficulty paying them, such as pensioners and low-income people, could arrange to pay them off in instalments.

(Photo: Photo: greenhitma/sxc.hu)




The Sofia Globe staff

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