Last stand for Czech energy regulator head?

Alena Vitásková, photo: Elena Horálková

Heroine or villain? The high profile but sometimes quixotic head of the Czech independent energy regulator Alena Vitásková could be cast either way by the role she has occupied since becoming chairwoman of the office in mid-2011. On Tuesday, she emerged again above the parapet again to fend off attacks on her person and the Energy Regulatory Authority (ERÚ).

Alena Vitásková,  photo: Elena Horálková
This time round, she says former Social Democrat minister of industry and trade and current chairman of the lower house of parliament’s energy sub-committee Milan Urban is seeking to radically transform the independent regulator and unseat her as chairwoman.

Urban on February 26 tabled proposals in parliament calling for a new five-person council to run the regulator with the chairmanship being rotated on an annual basis. The rules for ousting the chairman/woman would also be altered making it much easier.

Vitásková denounced Urban in a press conference, saying that he is seeking to topple her due to connections to the bio methane industry, adding that other energy and non-interests are also keen to remove her from power. A crusade against moves to introduce generous payments for energy produced from bio methane has been one of many waged by the ERÚ head. She says biogas risks being a second solar boom with Czech energy consumers paying billions of crowns to boost the bank balances of a few ‘barons’ with little substantial in return.

She has dispatched an open letter to Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka saying Urban’s proposed changes to the energy law are in conflict with Czech and EU rules and the coalition government’s own aims to curb energy prices and give a fairer deal for consumers.

Vitásková has in the past complained of other conspiracies to thwart her and has pointed a finger at some of the anonymous groups behind the short-lived but hugely expensive solar power boom. She said one attempt had been made to kill her by sabotaging the garage at her Prague flat. Police eventually shelved the case for lack of evidence. One thing can be said for sure, and that is that she had made plenty of enemies, but might now be running out of friends.

Last year, the energy regulator pushed through significant cuts in the regulated earnings of gas and electricity companies. She previously took on big gas companies, seeking to push through a new charging framework before the previous set of rules had run their term. She was later forced to back down following tepid political support. She has sought to curb the cost of the Czech solar boom by checking up whether licenses granted by her predecessors were in order and whether renewables output was what it was claimed. Even some of the solar power assets of state-controlled utility ČEZ have been caught up in the investigations she has sparked.

But Vitásková has also courted controversy herself. She is also the subject of a police investigation into whether she protected the owners of one major solar power project. And on Monday night, public broadcaster Czech Television suggested that she might be in a position of blatant conflict of interest by continuing to be involved in two gas companies sold off to relatives when she took up her office. What’s more, Vitásková appears to have lost key political support with the resignation of the man behind her original appointment, former Civic Democrat prime minister Petr Nečas.

With the Czech legal and police system frequently seeming to be part of the problem rather than the solution, it’s difficult to draw early conclusions about whether Vitásková is a courageous crusader for consumers and innocent victim of powerful interest groups or allied to some of the latter.