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?