The CMA, energy bills and how the Big Six got off scot-free

We read the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigation into Energy Markets report – with keen interest. We were anticipating something which would highlight the impacts of energy company monopolies, address unfairness for standard variable and pre-payment customers and suggest some useful remedies. What we got was this…

The CMA report effectively blames the 70% of energy customers sitting on expensive standard variable tariffs for being overcharged – because they have failed to switch. They think, despite all the national switching campaigns that have gone before, that more marketing and advertising should be the solution to a problem caused by up to 20% price differentiation between effectively identical products.

We don’t dispute that switching is an approach that works for individuals in the short term – you can find one-year fixed deals which are a lot cheaper than standard tariffs (and we can help you do this). But is it really the best the CMA can do to propose relying on customers (70% of customers!) to sort out the problem?

The CMA report fails to explore any robust approaches to making standard variable tariffs fairer, more competitive, ‘standard’ or indeed ‘variable’. As Dieter Helm points out;
In a well functioning competitive market, suppliers would compete to offer Standard Variable Tariffs. They would be “standard” because the product is homogenous. They would be variable (with lags of course) because costs vary. The CMA identifies the ‘striking’ difference between the prices that different customers pay for an almost entirely homogenous product – over 20% – but instead of framing this as market or regulatory failure – it proposes that customers should be further encouraged to fix this by switching. They note that firms are earning an average 11% more revenue from standard variable customers than from those on other tariffs – but (inexplicably) think that individuals ought to sort this out for themselves.

The CMA’s finding and recommendations become even more perplexing when they correctly identify that those on low incomes, with low qualifications, living in rented accommodation or who are above 65 are typically paying more for energy due to being more likely to be on standard variable tariffs. The CMA quickly start referring to these customer groups as ‘disengaged’ and thus are able to set out their proposal for solving the problem through a programme of ‘engagement’…

So what do they propose? Wait for it… The CMA intend to circulate the personal details of everyone on a standard variable tariff to other energy companies, so that they can be sent direct marketing with details of cheaper offers. That’s it.

There are many reasons why this response is lacking. We summarise a few here (thanks to Dieter Helm’s analysis http://www.dieterhelm.co.uk/energy/energy/flawed-in-almost-all-its-parts-the-final-cma-report/):

1. Wholesale market prices have fallen 30% over the last 3 years and standard variable tariffs barely reflect this. How will more marketing effectively address this disparity?

2. Energy wholesale prices are becoming increasing fixed as more and more generation is contracted (FiTs and capacity contracts) at a set price per unit by government. This means there will be increasingly less difference between the cost of wholesale energy and thus less reason for difference in consumer pricing.

3. How many people read unsolicited mail from companies trying to sell them products? Aren’t we already bombarded with marketing – why will this be any different?

4. This proposal identifies that low income and vulnerable households pay more, but fails to come up with a proposal which will really respond to this aspect of the problem.

On a different, but related matter, if you think that Ofgem should use their powers to stop the unfair treatment of vulnerable energy customers by suppliers – so do we, and we’ve started a petition about it: https://www.change.org/p/ofgem-the-government-s-energy-regulator-stop-energy-suppliers-from-forcing-vulnerable-customers-into-debt

Advertisements

British Gas does something great…

Yes, you did read the title correctly… and no I haven’t lost my mind. I’m about to congratulate an energy company for seeing the future and attempting to deliver it.

‘Free Energy at the Weekend’ reads the headline, ‘Gotta be a catch’ comes the reply. Well yes, and no is my observation. You may have seen that British Gas are now offering a tariff to households with smart meters which will give them ‘free’ daytime electricity on a Saturday or Sunday.

There is a huge degree of cynicism regarding energy companies, much of it justified. However, this time I think British Gas deserve some credit for taking a punt on what many perceive as the future of domestic energy – so what’s the deal?

Time of use tariffs are nothing new, as anyone who lives with storage heaters will tell you. Economy 7 tariffs, designed as a way of using the surplus energy that non-responsive power stations supply, have been in existence for years. Offering  cheap electricity during the night, and slightly more expensive electricity during the day, they have provided a make-do solution for the imbalance of electricity on the grid. Smart grids are destined to change that – with smart meters being the domestic device that allows this to happen.

The new tariff from British Gas aims to capitalise on the 2.89 million smart meters that have already been installed in homes across the country ( although you can’t yet switch supplier to BG if your smart meters were installed by another energy supplier).    The new tariff does not charge customers for any electricity used between 9 – 5 on either a Saturday or a Sunday (customers choice). Neither does it charge any extra for electricity at other times ( over and above other British Gas tariffs )

Can it save you money?

This is the key question, and it depends how much you can change your behaviour and your starting point. If I punch in my details to a comparison site, the BG tariff is 19% more than the current cheapest deal – the question I then need to ask is can I switch 19% ( or more ) of my electricity use to a Saturday between 9 and 5? The answer, for me, is quite simple – not a chance.

Different households will generate different numbers using the above approach, and for some this might prove financially worthwhile. British Gas conducted it’s own trials and found that the average customer saving was £60 – based on it’s own standard tariff. And that’s the rub of this, it is not the cheapest way to buy your energy.

So why the congratulations?

BG deserve recognition for introducing a tariff that actually has the legs to deliver behaviour change among UK households. Energy monitoring devices have been around for ages and whilst there are some ardent energy monitoring stalwarts (me included) the impact of these devices is rarely sustained after the novelty has worn thin. Improving on this by offering a ‘free’ period gives real control back to households. The joy you can feel by completing your 17th load of washing, safe in the knowledge that all you’ve paid is the 26p standing charge, is not to be sniffed at.

I hope the take up of this tariff proves a success for 2 reasons:

  1. It’s one of the first demonstrable and practicable uses for smart meters  -as such it has the ability to be used as an engagement tool on the smart meter shy.
  2. It has the potential to make households consider their energy usage as part of their normal routine.

What ever your thoughts on smart meters, or British Gas, this really could be the start of something big…..