Precariousness in the access to electricity through prepayment meters in Hungary (PREPAY)

31 May 2021

This is project is funded by FPRN as part of the EPEC programme for early career 2020-21 round.

Prepayment meters are often associated with energy poverty. In countries like the UK, Australia, Germany or Austria they are offered as an alternative billing method to vulnerable consumers with a record of unpaid bills and indebtedness. In Hungary, recent years have seen a surge of prepayment meters among households irregularly connected to the electricity grid or indebted to providers, especially in segregated areas where many poor Roma live. The research intends to generate policy-relevant knowledge on the everyday life impacts and ethnic dimensions of prepayment meters taking Hungary as a case study. It will make use of a unique qualitative dataset of transcripts from 34 interviews conducted among Hungarian households and stakeholders in the winter of 2020.

‘I am deeply honoured to be the recipient of an FPRN EPEC grant. It provides much appreciated support to my research on precarious access to energy and supply disconnections through a Hungarian case study – a country where the impact of prepayment meters on the life of energy poor Roma households is in much need of attention. At a time of global crisis and rising inequalities, the grant also underlines access to energy as a critical well-being issue’

‘The FPRN EPEC grant has allowed me to delve into the issue of prepayment meters (PPMs) from an energy poverty and justice perspective based on qualitative evidence previously collected in Hungary (34 interview transcripts with households and stakeholders). The paper supported by the EPEC grant assesses PPMs as technology that creates a two-tier segmentation of domestic energy users and may result into ‘second-class’ consumers for whom the continuity of the supply is strictly dependent on their ability to pay in advance for their electricity. From this perspective, our point of departure for the paper is that the deployment of PPMs creates new forms of energy poverty that are in open contradiction with views that advocate for a guaranteed minimum access to energy regardless of any personal and economic circumstances. This negative outcome – from a right to energy perspective – goes hand in hand with clear evidence, in the Hungarian context, showing how the installation of PPM has been beneficial for households previously disconnected or irregularly connected to the electricity grid and it has helped them leave behind a traumatic past of arrears and accumulated debts with utility providers. Many of the interviewed households openly express their preference for PPMs. As eloquently expressed by one of the interviewees, PPMs ‘also punish the ones who protect’ – thus illustrating the complex, ambivalent nature of PPMs.’

Sergio Tirado, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona
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