The UK energy industry (electricity and gas) is an oligopoly. There are six large suppliers: the ‘Big Six’. These are British Gas (Centrica, UK), EDF Energy (EDF, France), E.ON UK (E.ON, Germany), npower (RWE, Germany), Scottish Power (Iberdrola, Spain) and SSE (SSE Group, UK). The Big Six supply around 73% of the total UK market and around 90% of the domestic market.
Energy suppliers buy wholesale gas and electricity and sell it to customers. The industry has a considerable degree of vertical integration, with the energy suppliers also being involved in both generation and local distribution (long-distance distribution through the familiar pylons is by National Grid). There is also considerable horizontal integration, with energy suppliers supplying both electricity and gas and offering ‘dual-fuel’ deals, whereby customers get a discount by buying both fuels from the same supplier.
Smaller suppliers have complained about substantial barriers to entry in the industry. In particular, they normally have to buy wholesale from one of the Big Six. Lack of transparency concerning their costs and internal transfer prices by the Big Six has led to suspicions that they are charging more to independent suppliers than to themselves.
Under new regulations announced by Ofgem, the industry regulator, the Big Six will have to post the prices at which they will trade wholesale power two years in advance and must trade fairly with independent suppliers or face financial penalties. In addition, ‘a range of measures will make the annual statements of the large companies more robust, useful and accessible.’ According to the Ofgem Press Release:
From 31 March new rules come into force meaning the six largest suppliers and the largest independent generators will have to trade fairly with independent suppliers in the wholesale market, or face financial penalties. The six largest suppliers will also have to publish the price at which they will trade wholesale power up to two years in advance. These prices must be published daily in two one-hour windows, giving independent suppliers and generators the opportunity and products they need to trade and compete effectively.
But will these measures be enough to break down the barriers to entry in the industry and make the market genuinely competitive? The following articles look at the issue.
Boost for small energy firms as Big Six are ordered to trade fairly on wholesale markets or face multi-million pound fines This is Money, Rachel Rickard Straus (26/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News, Rachel Fletcher (26/2/14)
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big Six accounts The Telegraph, Denise Roland (26/2/14)
‘Big six’ told to trade fairly – will it make a difference? Channel 4 News, Emma Maxwell (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem forces trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ofgem tears down barriers to competition to bear down as hard as possible on energy prices Ofgem Press Release (26/2/14)
The energy market explained Energy UK
Energy in the United Kingdom Wikipedia
Big Six Energy Suppliers (UK) Wikipedia
- Describe the structure of the UK energy industry.
- What are the barriers to the entry of new energy suppliers and generators in the UK?
- To what extent is vertical integration in the electricity generation and supply industry in the interests of consumers?
- To what extent is horizontal integration in the electricity and gas markets in the interests of consumers?
- How will requiring the six largest energy suppliers to post their wholesale prices for the next 24 months increase competition in the energy market?
- Is greater transparency about the revenues, costs and profits of energy suppliers likely to make the market more competitive?
- Identify and discuss other measures which Ofgem could introduce to make the energy market more competitive.
The energy market is complex and is a prime example of an oligopoly: a few dominant firms in the market and interdependence between the suppliers. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the so-called ‘big six’ and collectively they generate 80% of the country’s electricity. There are two further large generators (Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK), meaning the electricity generation is also an oligopoly.
This sector has seen media attention for some years, with criticisms about the high profits made by suppliers, the high prices they charge and the lack of competition. Numerous investigations have taken place by Ofgem, the energy market regulator, and the latest development builds on a simple concept that has been a known problem for decades: barriers to entry. It is very difficult for new firms to enter this market, in particular because of the vertically integrated nature of the big six. Not only are they the suppliers of the energy, but they are also the energy generators. It is therefore very difficult for new suppliers to enter the market and access the energy that is generated.
Ofgem’s new plans will aim to reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus make it easier for new firms to enter and act as effective competitors. The big six energy generators are vertically integrated companies and thus effectively sell their energy to themselves, whereas other suppliers have to purchase their energy before they can sell it. The regulator’s plans aim to improve transparency by ensuring that wholesale power prices are published two years in advance, thus making it easier for smaller companies to buy energy and then re-sell it. Andrew Wright, the Chief Executive of Ofgem, said:
These reforms give independent suppliers, generators and new entrants to the market, both the visibility of prices, and [the] opportunities to trade, [that] they need to compete with the largest energy suppliers…Almost two million customers are with independent suppliers, and we expect these reforms to help these suppliers and any new entrants to grow.
Although such reforms will reduce the barriers to entry in the market and thus should aim to increase competition and hence benefit consumers, many argue that the reforms don’t go far enough and will have only minor effects on the competitiveness in the market. There are still calls for further reforms in the market and a more in-depth investigation to ensure that consumers are really getting the best deal. The following articles consider this ongoing saga and this highly complex market.
Ofgem ramps up scrutiny of Big six accounts Telegraph, Denise Roland (27/2/14)
Energy firms told to trade fairly with smaller rivals BBC News (26/2/14)
Energy regulator Ofgem force trading rules on ‘big six’ suppliers Financial Times, Andy Sharman (26/2/14)
Ed Davey calls on Ofgem to investigate energy firms’ gas profits The Guardian, Sean Farrell and Jennifer Rankin (10/2/14)
UK forces big power companies to reveal wholesale prices Reuters (26/2/14)
Watchdog unveils new rules on Big six energy prices Independent, Tom Bawden (26/2/14)
Energy Bills: New rules to boost competition Sky News, (26/2/14)
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly?
- Explain the reason why the vertically integrated nature of the big six energy companies creates a barrier to the entry of new firms.
- What are the barriers to entry in (a) the electricity supply market and (b) the electricity generating market?
- What action has Ofgem suggested to increase competition in the market? How effective are the proposals likely to be/
- Why is there a concern about liquidity in the market?
- If barriers to entry are reduced, how will this affect competition in the market? How will consumers be affected?
- Why are there suggestions that Ofgem’s proposals don’t go far enough?
The UK electricity supply market is an oligopoly. Over 95% of the market is supplied by the ‘big six’: British Gas (Centrica), EDF Energy, E.ON, npower (RWE), Scottish Power (Iberdrola) and SSE. The big six also generate much of the electricity they supply; they are vertically integrated companies. Between them they generate nearly 80% of the country’s electricity. There are a further two large generators, Drax Power Limited and GDF Suez Energy UK, making the generation industry an oligopoly of eight key players.
Ofgem, the energy market regulator, has just published a report on the wholesale electricity market, arguing that it is insufficiently liquid. This, argues the report, acts as a barrier to entry to competitor suppliers. It thus proposes measures to increase liquidity and thereby increase effective competition. Liquidity, according to the report, is:
… the ability to quickly buy or sell a commodity without causing a significant change in its price and without incurring significant transaction costs. It is a key feature of a well-functioning market. A liquid market can also be thought of as a ‘deep’ market where there are a number of prices quoted at which firms are prepared to trade a product. This gives firms confidence that they can trade when needed and will not move the price substantially when they do so.
A liquid wholesale electricity market ensures that electricity products are available to trade, and that their prices are robust. These products and price signals are important for electricity generators and suppliers, who need to trade to manage their risks. Liquidity in the wholesale electricity mark et therefore supports competition in generation and supply, which has benefits for consumers in terms of downward pressure on bills, better service and greater choice.
So how can liquidity be increased? Ofgem is proposing that the big six publish prices for two years ahead at which they are contracting to purchase electricity from generators in long-term contracts. These bilateral deals with generators are often with their own company’s generating arm. Publishing prices in this way will allow smaller suppliers to be able to seek out market opportunities. The generating companies will not be allowed to refuse to contract to supply smaller companies at the prices they are being forced to publish.
In addition, Ofgem is proposing that generators would have to sell 20% of output in the open market instead of through bilateral deals. As it is, however, some 30% of output is currently auctioned on the wholesale spot market (i.e. the market for immediate use).
But it is pricing transparency plus small suppliers being able to gain access to longer-term contracts that are the two key elements of the proposed reform.
UK utilities face having to disclose long-term deals Reuters, Karolin Schaps and Rosalba O’Brien (12/6/13)
Ofgem set to ‘break stranglehold’ in the energy market BBC News, John Moylan (12/6/13)
Ofgem plan ‘to end energy stranglehold’ BBC Today Programme, John Moylan and Ian Marlee (12/6/13)
Ofgem outlines proposals to ‘break stranglehold’ of big six energy suppliers on electricity market The Telegraph (12/6/13)
Ofgem widens investigation into alleged rigging of gas and power markets The Guardian, Terry Macalister (6/6/13)
Ofgem moves to break stranglehold of ‘big six’ energy suppliers Financial Times, Guy Chazan (12/6/13)
Ofgem to crackdown on Big Six energy suppliers in bid to cut electricity prices Independent, Simon Read (12/6/13)
Reports and data
Opening up Electricity Market to Effective Competition Ofgem Press Release (12/6/13)
Wholesale power market liquidity: final proposals for a ‘Secure and Promote’ licence condition – Draft Impact Assessment Ofgem (12/6/13)
Electricity statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
The Dirty Half Dozen Friends of the Earth (Oct 2011)
- What barriers to entry exist in (a) the wholesale and (b) the retail market for electricity?
- Distinguish between spot and forward markets. Why is competition in forward markets particularly important for small suppliers of electricity?
- How will ‘liquidity’ be increased by the measures Ofgem is proposing?
- To what extent does vertical integration in the energy industry benefit consumers of electricity?
- What is a price reporting agency (PRA)? What anti-competitive activities have been taking place in the short-term energy market and why may PRAs not be ‘fit for purpose’?
- Do you think that the measures Ofgem is proposing will ensure that the big generators trade fairly with small suppliers? Explain.
- What are the dangers in the proposals for the large generators?
The UK economy faces a growing problem of energy supplies as energy demand continues to rise and as old power stations come to the end of their lives. In fact some 10% of the UK’s electricity generation capacity will be shut down this month.
Energy prices have risen substantially over the past few years and are set to rise further. Partly this is the result of rising global gas prices.
In 2012, the response to soaring gas prices was to cut gas’s share of generation from 39.9% per cent to 27.5%. Coal’s share of generation increased from 29.5% to 39.3%, its highest share since 1996 (see The Department of Energy and Climate Change’s Energy trends section 5: electricity). But with old coal-fired power stations closing down and with the need to produce a greater proportion of energy from renewables, this trend cannot continue.
But new renewable sources, such as wind and solar, take a time to construct. New nuclear takes much longer (see the News Item, Going nuclear). And electricity from these low-carbon sources, after taking construction costs into account, is much more expensive to produce than electricity from coal-fired power stations.
So how will the change in balance between demand and supply affect prices and the security of supply in the coming years. Will we all have to get used to paying much more for electricity? Do we increasingly run the risk of the lights going out? The following video explores these issues.
UK may face power shortages as 10% of energy supply is shut down BBC News, Joe Lynam (4/4/13)
Electricity Statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
Quarterly energy prices Department of Energy & Climate Change
- What factors have led to a rise in electricity prices over the past few years? Distinguish between demand-side and supply-side factors and illustrate your arguments with a diagram.
- Are there likely to be power cuts in the coming years as a result of demand exceeding supply?
- What determines the price elasticity of demand for electricity?
- What measures can governments adopt to influence the demand for electricity? Will these affect the position and/or slope of the demand curve?
- Why have electricity prices fallen in the USA? Could the UK experience falling electricity prices for similar reasons in a few years’ time?
- In what ways could the government take into account the externalities from power generation and consumption in its policies towards the energy sector?
Centrica, owners of British Gas, has warned that electricity and gas prices in the UK are set to rise in the autumn. Centrica blames this on the expected rise in the costs of wholesale gas and other non-energy inputs.
One of the other ‘big six’ energy suppliers, E.On, has responded by saying that it will not raise energy prices this year. Whether it will raise prices after 1 Jan next year remains to be seen.
Last autumn, household energy prices rose substantially: between 15.4% and 18% for gas and between 4.5% and 16% for electricity. This spring, in response to lower wholesale energy prices, suppliers cut prices for either electricity or gas (but not both) by around 5%.
The government and various pressure groups are encouraging consumers to use price comparison sites to switch to a cheaper supplier. The problem with this is that supplier A may be cheaper than supplier B one month, but B cheaper than A the next. Nevertheless, switching does impose some degree of additional competitive pressure on suppliers.
More powerful pressure could be applied by ‘collective switching’. This is where a lot of people switch via an intermediary company, which sources a deal from an energy supplier. This collective buying is a form of countervailing power to offset the oligopoly power of the suppliers. Such schemes are being encouraged by the Energy Minister, Ed Davey.
The other approach, apart from doing nothing, is for Ofgem, the energy regulator, to impose tough conditions on pricing. But at present, Ofgem’s approach has been to try to make the market more competitive (see also), rather than regulating prices.
British Gas owner Centrica warns of higher energy bills BBC News (11/5/12)
E.ON to keep residential energy prices unchanged in 2012 Reuters, Adveith Nair (14/5/12)
E.ON promises to hold energy prices for 5million customers in 2012 This is Money, Tara Evans (14/5/12)
British Gas owner Centrica feels cold blast from critics ShareCast, John Harrington (11/5/12)
Gas and electricity price battle lines drawn BBC News (14/5/12)
Taking on the energy giants: The co-operative insurgency gains ground Left Foot Forward, Daniel Elton (11/5/12)
Group Energy Buying hits the UK Headlines Spend Matters UK/Europe, Peter Smith (11/5/12)
Think tank calls for competition to break Big Six rip-off Energy Live News, Tom Gibson (30/4/12)
Collective switching will not fix the UK’s broken energy market Guardian, Reg Platt (27/4/12)
Make your own small switch for cheaper energy The Telegraph, Rosie Murray-West (14/5/12)
- What are the barriers to entry in the electricity supply market?
- How competitive is the retail energy market at present?
- To what extent do price comparison sites put pressure on energy companies to reeduce prices or limit price increases?
- What scope is there for collective buying of gas and electricity from the six energy suppliers by (a) households; (b) firms?
- Assess Ofgem’s package of proposals for a simpler and more competitive energy market.