Society for Economic Anthropology
Oral Presentation Session
Since 2010 debt crises have have impoverished citizens and public utilities alike in Greece and Puerto Rico, creating “new” energy poverty (in industrialized settings) and complicating the challenges of transitioning to renewables. Problems of affordability due to austerity and high oil prices coincided with soaring electric bills in both places (well before Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico), a problem that exists in many countries. Clientelism inside both utilities led to free electricity for connected patrons, while poor citizens risked disconnection for unpaid bills. A new tax on utility bills prompted activists in Greece to reject debt and organize illegal reconnections. The electric company now has a $3 billion debt from unpaid bills. Hurricane Maria destroyed the grid of a utility already facing bankruptcy in Puerto Rico. Creditors, the EU and Washington push to privatize both utilities, arguing that competition aids the shift to renewables. Citizen advocates fear rates will rise further with privatization, a concern reinforced by other case studies. In this paper, based on ethnographic and political economic analysis in both settings, I contrast moral economies around energy “theft” and “rights,” and discuss the risks when debt is used to justify privatization. Given the climate imperative and the tight (if problematic) link of energy and development in a world with widespread energy poverty, I argue that it is time for activists and theorists to develop a social analysis of energy and to engage with wider publics to imagine what a moral economy of energy might look like.