Following a 38% increase in profit margins made by energy companies towards the end of 2010, Ofgem (the energy and gas regulator) began an investigation into the activities of energy companies. The review by Ofgem was aimed at determining whether or not consumers should be better protected from the powerful energy companies, many of whom had previously raised prices, forcing some consumers to pay an extra £138 per year. At the time, it was believed that Ofgem might request support from the Competition Commission, but it seems as though the big size energy companies have had a lucky escape. They will not be referred to the Competition Commission, even though critics, in particular First Utility – Britain’s largest independent energy supplier – suggest that Ofgem’s proposals are unlikely to be effective. It seems that the big six have shown sufficient co-operation with Ofgem.
A key reform that Ofgem hope to implement will try to reduce the power of this oligopoly by making it easier for new entrants to gain market share. One such proposal would see the big six auctioning off up to a fifth of the electricity they generate. As the owners of Britain’s power stations, new companies cannot buy gas and electricity on the open market and this reform aims to change that. However, there are concerns that this will be ineffective, as the big six may simply outbid the smaller companies or even just buy and sell electricity from each other, thereby keeping their dominant positions in the market. Although the big six have received constant criticism from all sides, the lack of government support for a Competition Commission inquiry may be related to the need for these companies to invest £200bn in Britain by 2020 to help create and build new energy sources, including wind farms and nuclear power. Without this investment, Britain’s energy supply could be in jeopardy. The following articles consider this energetic debate.
Ofgem may be blown away by the power of the ‘Big Six’ energy companies Telegraph, Rowena Mason (23/6/11)
Ofgem pledges to get tough with ‘big six’ energy companies Guardian, Miles Brignall (22/6/11)
Scottish power investigated over ‘misleading’ marketing campaign Independent, Sarah Arnott (23/6/11)
Ofgem and ‘Big Six’ need to put some energy into cleaning up their acts Telegraph, Richard Fletcher (23/6/11)
In search of a coherent energy policy Independent, David Prosser (23/6/11)
UK suppliers face tough power auction reforms Reuters (22/6/11)
Ofgem: ‘We are watching energy companies closely’ BBC News (22/6/11)
Energy price statistics Department of Energy & Climate Change
Energy statistics publications Department of Energy & Climate Change
- What is the role of Ofgem? How does it relate to the Competition Commission?
- What factors have contributed to the investigation by Ofgem into the ‘big six’ energy companies?
- How much power does Ofgem actually have to implement reforms?
- What are the characteristics of an oligopoly? To what extent does the energy market fit into this market structure?
- What are the main barriers to entry that prevent new companies from competing with the ‘big six’? Are the reforms likely to help them?
- What other proposals have been suggested by parties other than Ofgem in bid to help new competitors and customers? Are any likely to be more effective than those proposed by Ofgem?
There has been a 38% increase in profit margins made by energy companies in the last 2 months and it is this which has prompted an investigation by Ofgem, the electricity and gas market regulator in the UK. Alistair Buchanan, Ofgem’s chief executive, said:
“With Britain facing an investment bill of £20bn over the next 10 years, consumers have the right to expect that the energy retail market is providing them with value for money. Our analysis published today shows an increase in company margins from £65 to £90 at a time of rising energy prices, which causes Ofgem to rightly ask if companies are playing it straight with consumers.”
Three of the big six suppliers have recently announced price rises and the fast-track review by Ofgem will consider whether consumers should be better protected. Scottish Power has increased gas prices by 2% and electricity prices by nearly 9%, meaning some customers may pay an extra £138 per year. British Gas is also planning on raising prices from December 10th, with gas and electricity bills expected to increase by 7%. Scottish and Southern Energy said it will increase domestic gas tariffs by 9.4%. EDF has promised a price freeze – at least until after the winter and nPower and E.ON are yet to announce their plans, but we can expect some form of a price rise.
While the review won’t make any difference to customer bills in the short term, Ofgem does have the power to make some changes to the way the companies are run. It is also expected that Ofgem will ask for more legislative support from the government and the Competition Commission. Although there are several suppliers in the energy market, each has market power and their dominance is preventing new firms from entering. As Adam Scorer, Director of Reputation and Impact at Consumer Focus, said:
“They do not feel the hot breath of competition on their necks.”
Energy firms facing gas and electricity price review BBC News (26/11/10)
Energy firms face new Ofgem enquiry over price rises and increased profits Telegraph, Andrew Hough (26/11/10)
Ofgem promises review as energy firms boost profit margins 38% Guardian, Jill Treanor (26/11/10)
Fuel bills: turning up the heat Guardian (27/11/10)
Energy firms face profit rise probe The Press Association (26/11/10)
Scepticism greets energy price probe Financial Times, David Blair (26/11/10)
UK utilities face review after recent price hikes Reuters (26/11/10)
UK to review retail energy market after price rises Bloomberg, Business Week, Kari Lundgren (26/11/10)
Has the toothless energy regulator learnt how to bite? Independent on Sunday, Julian Knight (28/11/10)
How to beat the energy price rise Telegraph (20/11/10)
Ofgem must mean business this time Herald (27/11/10)
Ofgem Press Release
Ofgem to review the effectiveness of the retail energy market to see if further action is needed to protect consumers Ofgem (26/11/10)
- What type of market structure is the UK energy market?
- The BBC News article talks about barriers preventing new competitors from entering the market. What types of barriers exist in this sector?
- What is a profit margin?
- What is likely to be the impact on family income following such price rises? Illustrate this on a diagram.
- Britain faces a £200 billion bill to invest in updating the energy network. What sort of updates are being referred to?
- What power do regulators such as Ofgem actually have? Why won’t they be able to change the amount that consumers pay?
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?