If the popularization of technicalities is the best example of the depth of a crisis, this is an example of category. The risk premium that was in all the sauces and conversations a decade ago today is euros per megawatt hour. With households paying more than ever for electricity and inflation through the roof, the third vice president and minister for the Ecological Transition, Teresa Ribera (Madrid, 52 years old), receives EL PAÍS in one of the noble rooms of the ministerial headquarters , of questionable Asian motifs and with incomparable views of the capital’s financial hub.
Tired face after several hot weeks on the street and in offices, in his rictus and in his tone a hint of optimism is sensed: to achieve the definitive approval of Brussels, the limit of the price of natural gas that is used to generate electricity promises to halve the bill faced by 40% of consumers. A ray of hope after nine months of turbulence in the energy markets, aggravated by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
In the long hour of conversation, Ribera trusts the European approval of this unprecedented cap on gas —”there is political support and a clear orientation”—, which he hopes to have active before May 1. He casts a double magnifying glass on Spain and Portugal: that of the European Commission and that of other EU member states that may be inclined to follow his path if the solution works. He insists that the measure will not cost a euro of public money. He asks the big electricity companies to make an effort — “I have missed more committed behaviors: they know that their business is going to continue to grow yes or yes because the economy is going to continue to electrify” -. And he takes Algeria’s gas supply for granted.
Ask. The approved measures are largely palliative. Is it about buying time to bridge the crisis?
Answer. The Russian invasion of the Ukraine has shaken the foundations of energy policy since the Industrial Revolution and confirms that we need to change our system fast, both for environmental and rational reasons. The vulnerability regarding certain providers is great, but we have solutions to avoid it. We have to change our energy matrix, look for nearby resources and make intelligent use of energy. Accelerating all that guides us to a different life.
P. Are we at war and we have to adapt?
He knows in depth all the sides of the coin.
R. We are at war, and that has economic and social consequences. The will of the Government is to mitigate them to the maximum, but we must all lend a hand, according to the different capacities. There are other countries that launch direct calls to citizens to use public transport, to save on heating… Simple things that do not require great effort, but do require awareness.
P. Should we get used to high energy prices?
R. Our obligation as a Government is to be very prepared to help those who have less margin to face this situation. There are more and more middle class affected: they are no longer just those with lower income.
P. When will the gas cap be shown on the electricity bill?
R. The day after it was published in the State official newsletter.
P. On the May bill?
R. We estimate that the Commission needs three or four weeks to take a decision.
P. How much will the light drop with that measurement?
R. It will go down significantly. Even if it doesn’t go as low as we’d like, there’s going to be a significant decoupling from current prices. What does it depend on? The exact terms that are authorized by the Commission and how the price of gas continues to evolve. Because we will not stop paying it: it will only happen that the electricity produced by all technologies will not be paid at that price.
P. Do you commit, then, that on May 1 this reduction will begin to be noticed?
R. I will not fall into the trap of committing myself to something that does not depend exclusively on me and my team. A good part depends on the Commission. I am optimistic: I am confident that there is political backing and clear guidance.
P. Is that trust enough, very important or total?
R. My confidence is very important regarding the possibility that it will be active before the end of the month.
P. Will it please Brussels?
R. I am convinced. We will find how to properly resolve issues that may generate discrepancies.
P. So don’t expect a lot of tweaking.
R. We have been working with them for a long time. We understand your concerns, which are otherwise reasonable.
R. Inertia is a terrible law of physics.
P. What requirements must you meet?
R. It is important that it can last over time. And this means that it cannot be financed from budgets or from the system’s future debt. It has to be self-financing.
P. Can you serve as an example for others?
R. I think they are going to look at us with a magnifying glass in the rest of the European Union.
P. In a negative or positive sense?
R. In both. With caution, because obviously it is a sector that is also highly financialized and whoever has triggered their return expectations in view of the evolution of gas prices, will not be very happy. But I also think that, if it works, other Member States will consider it.
P. It guarantees, then, that this measure will not lead to a greater public deficit…
R. It won’t.
P. No more fare deficit.
R. That’s it.
P. And for consumers?
R. It will represent a net benefit yes or yes.
R. Yes, of course because we went from 230 or 240 [euros por megavatio hora] I don’t know if it’s 100, 110, 130 or 140, it depends on the day, the hour, the price of gas at all times and how the system was just configured. But it means a very important reduction. Our historical reference of what was unbearable was 180 euros. No one ever thought it would come to that and it did.
P. Where is the limit of what is bearable today?
R. Let’s not forget the human factor. With those 180 euros that three years ago seemed unbearable to us, we would have been so happy the last two months. It is irresponsible not to intervene in the rules of a market that is absolutely distorted and does not respond to anything, because there is only one factor that alters its operation: gas.
P. In several countries, the population is beginning to be warned of possible supply cuts. Can it happen in Spain?
R. We think not. We are not in that situation: we have a robust system, with a much more diversified supply. France, for example, has had a serious problem with its nuclear park and low penetration of renewables. We have more limited risks. We are not going to have gas, electricity, gasoline or diesel supply problems.
P. The linear drop of 20 cents in fuel is highly regressive: a high-end SUV benefits just as much as a utility vehicle.
R. It is true that not all the population needs the same type of support and, therefore, the ideal would have been to be able to identify which groups it is intended for. But we have had to adopt a decision that would allow a quick, immediate execution. Over time, obviously, we must move towards very different mobility models, with less weight in the particular fossil fuel car. And, where appropriate, if accompanying measures are needed, that these be much more tailored to the population groups that need it.
P. Taxes on fuels are not lowered, is it because it would be very difficult to reverse the measure when prices normalize?
R. There are many reasons. Fuel taxation has components that are not untouchable. There is an intention to help the consumption of something that continues to be essential for the day-to-day of families, but not to give a signal that alters the tax system. The three master keys of the ecological transition continue to be saving and efficiency; electrification; and renewables, which are a quality and stable energy solution that does not emit CO2, and that provide price stability.
P. Is there no margin to reduce taxes so that the PP votes in favor?
R. There is a distorted, interested and not very constructive reading for a long time. We lower taxes on electricity and they do not vote in favor; They asked to abolish the tax that they created and they did not vote in favor. That has been a constant. I trust that you will support these initiatives, because they are aligned with the Conference of Presidents. If there is a real will to build, it is shown on a day-to-day basis.
P. If Paris is worth a mass, isn’t bringing out the plan with broad consensus worth some sacrifice and contradiction on the part of the government to win over the PP?
R. Quite frankly and with personal conviction: I think the package is the most comprehensive that has ever been passed. It will have a broad consensus. And whoever is left out has a very difficult time explaining why. You can’t give a permanent no to everything.
P. This package comes after widespread protest. Is the Government losing the pulse of the street?
R. Not at all. The Government feels that this is a very sensitive moment for all citizens. We come from a series of crises that had never been imagined and that we have tried to manage as best as possible and responding to the pulse of the street. It is normal that this generates great concern, great anxiety and great uncertainty about the future.
P. How to speed up interconnections with the rest of Europe?
R. Spain is committed to a Europe that pools its infrastructures, and has defended a greater connection with France: you just have to use the newspaper library. It was discarded because the Commission’s cost-benefit analysis said it was not feasible. Now he says: oh, if he had already been…! But nobody imagined that we were going to have to cut off the Russian supply. Now then, if what prevails is the security of supply: why should the Spanish consumer pay for it, who already finances his own security of supply with six regasification plants? Let’s put European money. And the Commission is willing and understands it.
P. Is the Algerian gas supply guaranteed?
R. I think so. They are still in the process of negotiating prices with Spanish buyers and I hope they reach an agreement as soon as possible. The relationship is fluid and it is a reliable, serious country with which we traditionally and necessarily have to have an excellent friendship.
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