The global battle for fuel is expected to peak this winter. The combination of rising demand and a tightening of supply has sparked concerns of shortages in the market. Some people are worried about another ‘winter of discontent’. Gas prices have risen fivefold in Europe as a whole.
In the UK, consumers are likely to find that the natural gas needed to heat their homes this October will cost at least five times more than it did a year ago. This surge in wholesale gas prices has seen several UK energy suppliers stop trading as they are unable to make a profit. This is because of an energy price cap for some consumers and various fixed price deals they had signed with their customers.
There are thus fears of an energy crisis in the UK, especially if there is a cold winter. There are even warnings that during a cold snap, gas supply to various energy-intensive firms may be cut off. This comes at a time when some of these industries are struggling to make a profit.
Demand and supply
The current situation is a combination of long- and short-term factors. In spring 2020, the demand for gas actually decreased due to the pandemic. This resulted in low gas prices, reduced UK production and delayed maintenance work and investment along global supply chains. However, since early 2021, consumer demand for gas has soared. First, there was an increased demand due to the Artic weather conditions last winter. This was then followed by heatwaves in the USA and Europe over the summer, which saw an increase in the use of air conditioning units. With the increased demand combined with calm weather conditions, wind turbines couldn’t supply enough power to meet demand.
There has also been a longer-term impact on demand throughout the industry due to the move to cleaner energy. The transitioning to wind and solar has seen a medium-term increase in the demand for gas. There is also a long-term impact of the target for net zero economies in the UK and Europe. This has hindered investors’ willingness to invest in developing supplies of fossil fuels due the fact they could become obsolete over the next few decades.
Nations have also been unable to build up enough supplies for winter. This is partly due to Europe’s domestic gas stocks having declined by 30% per cent in the past decade. This heightened situation is leading to concerns that there will be black-outs or cut-offs in gas this winter.
Importation of gas
A concern for the UK is that it has scant storage facilities with no long-term storage. The UK currently has very modest amounts of storage – less than 6% of annual demand and some five times less than the average in the rest of Europe. It has been increasingly operating a ‘just-in-time model’, which is more affected by short-term price fluctuations in the wholesale gas market. With wind power generation remaining lower than average during summer 2021, more gas than usual has been used to generate electricity, leaving less gas to go into storage.
However, some argue that the problem is not just the UK’s physical supply of gas but demand for gas from elsewhere. Around half of the UK’s supply comes from its own production sites, while the rest is piped in from Europe or shipped in as liquefied natural gas (LNG) from the USA, Qatar and Russia. In 2019, the UK imported almost 20% of its gas through LNG shipments. However, Asian gas demand has grown rapidly, expanding by 50% over the past decade. This has meant that LNG has now become much harder to secure.
The issue is the price the UK has to pay to continue receiving these supplies. Some in the gas industry believe the price surge is only temporary, caused by economic disruptions, while many others say it highlights a structural weakness in a continent that has become too reliant on imported gas. It can be argued that the gas crisis has highlighted the lack of a coherent strategy to manage the gas industry as the UK transitions to a net zero economy. The lack of any industry investment in new capacity suggests that there is currently no business case for new long-term storage in the UK, especially as gas demand is expected to continue falling over the longer term.
Impact on consumers and industry
Gas prices for suppliers have increased fivefold over the past year. Therefore, many companies face a considerable rise in their bills. MSome may need to reduce or pause production – or even cease trading – which could cause job losses. Alternatively, they could pass on their increased costs to customers by charging them higher prices. Although energy-intensive industries are particularly exposed, every company that has to pay energy bills will be affected. Due to the growing concerns about the security of winter gas supplies those industries reliant on gas, such as the fertiliser industry, are restricting production, threatening various supply chains.
Most big domestic gas suppliers buy their gas months in advance, meaning they will most likely pass on the higher price rises they have experienced in the past few months. The increased demand and decreased supply has already meant meant that customers have faced higher prices for their energy. The UK has been badly hit because it’s one of Europe’s biggest users of natural gas – 85% of homes use gas central heating – and it also generates a third of the country’s electricity.
The rising bills are particularly an issue for those customers on a variable tariff. About 15 million households have seen their energy bills rise by 12% since the beginning of October due to the rise in the government’s energy price cap calculated by the regulator, Ofgem. A major concern is that this increase in bills comes at a time when the need to use more heating and lighting is approaching. It also coincides with other price rises hitting family budgets and the withdrawal of COVID support schemes.
Government intervention – maximum pricing
If the government feels that the equilibrium price in a particular market is too high, it can intervene in the market and set a maximum price. When the government intervenes in this way, it sets a price ceiling on certain basic goods or services and does not permit the price to go above that set limit. A maximum price is normally set for reasons of fairness and to benefit consumers on low incomes. Examples include energy price caps to order to control fuel bills, rent controls in order to improve affordability of housing, a cap on mobile roaming charges within the EU and price capping for regional monopoly water companies.
The energy price cap
Even without the prospect of a colder than normal winter, bills are still increasing. October’s increase in the fuel cap means that many annual household fuel bills will rise by £135 or more. The price cap sets the maximum price that suppliers in England, Wales and Scotland can charge domestic customers on a standard, or default tariff. The cap has come under the spotlight owing to the crisis among suppliers, which has seen eleven firms fold, with more expected.
The regulator Ofgem sets a price cap for domestic energy twice a year. The latest level came into place on 1 October. It is a cap on the price of energy that suppliers can charge. The price cap is based on a broad estimate of how much it costs a supplier to provide gas and electricity services to a customer. The calculation is mainly made up of wholesale energy costs, network costs such as maintaining pipes and wires, policy costs including Government social and environmental schemes, operating costs such as billing and metering services and VAT. Therefore, suppliers can only pass on legitimate costs of supplying energy and cannot charge more than the level of the price cap, although they can charge less. A household’s total bill is still determined by how much gas and electricity is used.
- Those on standard tariffs, with typical household levels of energy use, will see an increase of £139.
- People with prepayment meters, with average energy use, will see an annual increase of £153.
- Households on fixed tariffs will be unaffected. However, those coming to the end of a contract are automatically moved to a default tariff set at the new level.
Ordinarily, customers are able to shop around for cheaper deals, but currently, the high wholesale prices of gas means that cheaper deals are not available.
Despite the cap limiting how much providers can raise prices, the current increase is the biggest (and to the highest amount) since the cap was introduced in January 2019. As providers are scarcely making a profit on gas, there are concerns that a further increase in wholesale prices will cause more suppliers to be forced out of business. Ofgem said that the cap is likely to go up again in April, the next time it is reviewed.
The record prices being paid by suppliers and deficits in gas supply across the world have stoked fears that the energy crisis will get worse. It comes at a time when households are already facing rising bills, while some energy-intensive industries have started to slow production. This has started to dent optimism around the post-pandemic economic recovery.
Historically, UK governments have trusted market mechanisms to deliver UK gas security. However, consumers are having to pay the cost of such an approach. The price cap has meant the UK’s gas bills have until now been typically lower than the EU average. However, the rise in prices comes on top of other economic problems such as labour shortages and increasing food prices, adding up to an unwelcome rise in the cost of living.
- Using a supply and demand diagram, illustrate what has happened in the energy market over the past year.
- What are the advantages and disadvantages of government intervention in a free market?
- Explain why it is necessary for the regulator to intervene in the energy market.
- Using the concept of maximum pricing, illustrate how the price cap works.
In June 2014, the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (which governs the energy regulator, Ofgem) referred Great Britain’s retail and wholesale gas and electricity markets to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA). The market is dominated by the ‘big six‘ energy companies (British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE) and Ofgem suspected that this oligopoly was distorting competition and leading to higher prices.
The CMA presented its report on 10 March 2016. It confirmed its preliminary findings of July and December 2015 “that there are features of the markets for the supply of energy in Great Britain that result in an adverse effect on competition”. It concludes that “the average customer could save over £300 by switching to a cheaper deal” and that “customers could have been paying about £1.7 billion a year more than they would in a competitive market”.
It made various recommendations to address the problem. These include “requiring the largest suppliers to provide fuller information on their financial performance” and strengthening the role of Ofgem.
Also the CMA wants to encourage more people to switch to cheaper suppliers. At present, some 70% of the customers of the big six are on default standard variable tariffs, which are more expensive than other tariffs available. To address this problem, the CMA proposes the setting up of “an Ofgem-controlled database which will allow rival suppliers to contact domestic and microbusiness customers who have been stuck on their supplier’s default tariff for 3 years or more with better deals.”
Another area of concern for the CMA is the 4 million people (16% of customers) forced to have pre-payment meters. These tend to be customers with poor credit records, who also tend to be on low incomes. Such customers are paying more for their gas and electricity and yet have little opportunity to switch to cheaper alternatives. For these customers the CMA proposed imposing transitional price controls from no later than April 2017 until 2020. These would cut typical bills by some £80 to £90 per year. In the meantime, the CMA would seek to remove “restrictions on the ability of new suppliers to compete for prepayment customers and reduce barriers such as debt issues that make it difficult for such customers to switch”.
Despite trying to address the problem of lack of competition, consumer inertia and barriers to entry, the CMA has been criticised for not going further. It has also been criticised for the method it has chosen to help consumers switch to cheaper alternative suppliers and tariffs. The articles below look at these criticisms.
Competition and Markets Authority Energy Report BBC You and Yours (10/3/16)
Millions could see cut in energy bills BBC News (10/3/16)
Shake-up of energy market could save customers millions, watchdog says The Telegraph, Jillian Ambrose (10/3/16)
UK watchdog divided over energy market reforms Financial Times, Kiran Stacey (10/3/16)
How the CMA energy inquiry affects you Which? (10/3/16)
UK watchdog accused of bowing to pressure from ‘big six’ energy suppliers The Guardian, Terry Macalister (10/3/16)
CMA sets out energy market changes CMA press release (10/3/16)
Energy Market Investigation: Summary of provisional remedies Competition and Markets Authority (10/3/16)
- Find out the market share of the ‘big six’ and whether this has changed over the past few years.
- What, if any, are the barriers to entry in the gas and electricity retail markets?
- Why are the big six able to charge customers some £300 per household more than would be the case if they were on the cheapest deal?
- What criticisms have been made of the CMA’s proposals?
- Discuss alternative proposals to those of the CMA for dealing with the problem of excessive prices of gas and electricity.
- Should Ofgem or another independent not-for-profit body be allowed to run its own price comparison and switching service? Would this be better than the CMA’s proposal for allowing competitors access to people’s energy usage after 3 years of being with the same company on its standard tariff and allowing them to contact these people?
When an industry produces positive externalities, there is an argument for granting subsidies. To achieve the socially efficient output in an otherwise competitive market, the marginal subsidy should be equal to the marginal externality. This is the main argument for subsidising wind power. It helps in the switch to renewable energy away from fossil fuels. There is also the secondary argument that subsidies help encourage the development of technologies that would be too uncertain to fund at market rates.
If subsidies are to be granted, it is important that they are carefully designed. Not only does their rate need to reflect the size of the positive externalities, but also they should not entail any perverse incentive effects. But this is the claim about subsidies given to wind turbines: that they create an undesirable side effect.
Small-scale operators are encouraged to build small turbines by offering them a higher subsidy per kilowatt generated (through higher ‘feed-in’ tariffs). But according to a report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), this is encouraging builders and operators of large turbines to ‘derate’ them. This involves operating them below capacity in order to get the higher tariff. As the IPPR overview states:
The scheme is designed to support small-scale providers, but the practice of under-reporting or ‘derating’ turbines’ generating capacity to earn a higher subsidy is costing the taxpayer dearly and undermining the competitiveness of Britain’s clean energy sector.
The loophole sees developers installing ‘derated’ turbines – that is, turbines which are ‘capped’ so that they generate less energy. Turbines are derated in this way so that developers and investors are able to qualify for the more generous subsidy offered to lower-capacity turbines, generating 100–500kW. By installing derated turbines, developers are making larger profits off a feature of the scheme that was designed to support small-scale projects. Currently, the rating of a turbine is declared by the manufacturer and installer, resulting in a lack of external scrutiny of the system.
The subsidies are funded by consumers through higher electricity prices. As much as £400 million could be paid in excess subsidies. The lack of scrutiny means that operators could be receiving as much as £100 000 per year per turbine in excess subsidies.
However, as the articles below make clear, the facts are disputed by the wind industry body, RenewableUK. Nevertheless, the report is likely to stimulate debate and hopefully a closing of the loophole.
Turbine power: the cost of wind power to taxpayers Channel 4 News, Tom Clarke (10/2/15)
Wind subsidy loophole boosts spread of bigger turbines Financial Times, Pilita Clark (10/2/15)
Call to Close Wind Power ‘Loophole’ Herald Scotland, Emily Beament (10/2/15)
Wind farm developers hit back at ‘excessive subsidy’ claims Business Green, Will Nichols (10/2/15)
The £400million feed-in frenzy: Green energy firms accused of making wind turbines LESS efficient so they appear weak enough to win small business fund Mail Online, Ben Spencer (10/2/15)
Wind power subsidy ‘loophole’ identified by new report Engineering Technology Magazine, Jonathan Wilson (11/2/15)
Feed-in Frenzy Institute for Public Policy Research, Joss Garman and Charles Ogilvie (February 2015)
- Draw a diagram to demonstrate the optimum marginal rate of a subsidy and the effect of the subsidy on output.
- Who should pay for subsidies: consumers, the government (i.e. taxpayers generally), electricity companies through taxes on profits made from electricity generation using fossil fuels, some other source? Explain your thinking.
- What is the argument for giving a higher subsidy to operators of small wind turbines?
- If wind power is to be subsidised, is it better to subsidise each unit of output of electricity, or the construction of wind turbines or both? Explain.
- What could Ofgem do (or the government require Ofgem to do) to improve the regulation of the wind turbine industry?
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?