Bosses at European utilities warn against ‘short-sighted’ political measures

Chief executives of European utilities including Enel, Orsted, Vattenfall and EDP have written to EU governments urging them to avoid drastic market interventions such as Spain’s windfall tax, as countries resort to emergency measures to curb the energy crisis.

In a letter due to be sent this week to EU member states and the European Commission, seen by the Financial Times, more than 15 chief executives warn member states against taking “short-sighted political measures” that risk undermining market confidence and derailing the green transition.

The commission on Wednesday will publish a “toolbox” of measures for high energy prices, recommending temporary steps such as cutting taxes, providing income support to the poorest households and increasing renewable energy capacity.

The industry letter comes as Spain’s big electricity companies — notably Iberdrola, the multinational utility, and Endesa, the subsidiary of Italy’s Enel — are making their first payments under the country’s temporary windfall levy, which rises in tandem with the price of gas.

Spain’s leftwing government initially estimated that, based on prices last month, the measure would raise €2.6bn during its six months in force, taking funds from utilities that benefit from the impact of gas on the electricity price but which do not have corresponding gas costs of their own.

But the continued increase in gas prices means the levy may now cost the companies involved more than €5.5bn — which the groups argue shows that it was disproportionate and ill-conceived.

About 20 EU governments have announced emergency spending plans to protect consumers from surging costs but no other member state has yet implemented a profits tax on utilities.

Kristian Ruby, secretary-general of Eurelectric, who organised the letter, said Brussels should make clear that the Spanish tax contravenes EU law.

“We ultimately will be looking for a signal to the commission at some point, to take a clear stance on what the Spanish government has implemented,” said Ruby. “If all member states [take measures] like Spain, there is no doubt that it will slow down or even derail the energy transition.”

Brussels’ toolbox will not explicitly repudiate Spain’s windfall levy, according to a draft seen by the FT. Instead, the paper will focus only on short-term policy measures that can be taken to protect households from surging electricity costs driven by record prices for natural gas.

Madrid says the proceeds will be used alongside temporary tax cuts to bring electricity prices down and insists the measure is fully compliant with EU law.

“The government’s measures take into account the change in prices,” said a Spanish official. “The situation is being followed closely and there will be no hesitation in acting again if it is necessary.”

Ignacio Galán, chair and chief executive of Iberdrola, is set on Wednesday to meet Teresa Ribera, Spain’s deputy prime minister for the environment.

The companies argue the windfall profits the levy targets are illusory, since most energy for this year and next has already been sold via longer-term contracts rather than at the spot prices that have hit a series of all-time highs.

“More than 80 per cent of all the electricity in Spain that is hit by [the windfall tax] has already been sold and is already tied up in bilateral contracts. So you’re putting companies in a situation where they are forced to pay a bigger tax than the actual revenue they’re getting. They’re basically being forced to resell their energy,” said Ruby.

He added that he expected the companies to “pursue all options” to challenge the legality of the measure. However, the utilities’ legal recourse against the royal decree that implemented the levy may be limited.

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