Is the power supply industry a cartel? Are the energy companies exploiting a position of market dominance to increase profits at the expense of consumers? At first sight, it would certainly seem so. Despite falling wholesale prices for gas and electricity, the six main power suppliers have not reduced prices to their customers. The result has been a substantial rise in profits. Over the past three years, the average annual gross profit for supplying each dual-fuel customer has been £110. The figure has now risen to £170, a rise of 55%. This is likely to rise further in the short term with further reductions in wholesale energy prices over the next few weeks.
But despite this large increase in profits, the power companies are considering increasing prices this coming winter if wholesale energy prices start to rise again, even though the expected wholesale price rise would still leave them with a gross profit of £140 per dual-fuel customer.
Ofgem, the gas and electricity industry regulator, wrote to the six main companies asking them to explain their pricing position. You can read Ofgem’s report from the link below. In it, Ofgem argues that there is scope for the companies to cut their prices. But Ofgem no longer has the power to cap prices: in 2002 the RPI-X system of price cap regulation was abandoned, since it was felt that there was enough competition between suppliers not to warrant price regulation.The articles below consider the question of whether the companies are justified in their pricing policy or whether they are exploiting their market power to make excessive profits.
No energy cuts despite huge profits (video) Channel 4 News (18/9/09)
Energy bills may rise despite wholesale price drop Times Online (19/9/09)
Where is the will to power? Times Online (19/9/09)
Energy bills set to rise further, companies warn Guardian (18/9/09)
Energy bills ‘unlikely to fall’ BBC News (18/9/09)
Bills face a power surge (Douglas Fraser’s Ledger) BBC News (18/9/09)
An Electricity and Gas Price Cartel? Why Ofgem Can’t Tell iStockAnalyst (17/9/09)
Evidence from Ofgem:
Ofgem’s letter to the six main suppliers and their responses to Ofgem can be read here
Ofgem’s findings can be read in Quarterly Wholesale / Retail Price Report – August 2009
Ofgem Factsheet: Household energy bills explained
- Assess the justification by the power companies for not reducing the price of gas and electricity to their customers.
- Explain what is meant by ‘hedging’ in the context of the purchase of gas and electricity.
- The power suppliers are an oligopoly. If there is collusion between them, what form does it take? Why is it very hard to find evidence of collusion?