Under the microscope. Reviewing the micro-business energy market

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1 Under the microscope Reviewing the micro-business energy market

2 About Consumer Focus Consumer Focus is the statutory consumer champion for England, Wales, Scotland and (for postal consumers) Northern Ireland. We operate across the whole of the economy, persuading businesses, public services and policy-makers to put consumers at the heart of what they do. Consumer Focus tackles the issues that matter to consumers, and aims to give people a stronger voice. We don t just draw attention to problems we work with consumers and with a range of organisations to champion creative solutions that make a difference to consumers lives. Following the Government s consumer advocacy reforms, we will continue to act in the consumer interest across a wide range of sectors until our general advocacy role passes to Citizens Advice in April As part of the reforms, Consumer Focus will establish a new unit to identify and represent consumers interests in complex, regulated sectors, including energy and post issues and, in Scotland, water. Our Annual Plan for is available online at For regular updates from Consumer Focus, sign up to our monthly e-newsletter by ing see our blog at blog or follow us on Twitter Cover image by Douglas Robertson; page 4 image by Alexis Bailey Consumer Focus

3 Introduction In 2004 one of our predecessor bodies, energywatch, commissioned a large piece of research called Business energy markets. It explored how the business energy market functioned from small business consumers perspectives. In late 2011 we commissioned to update the report. We were interested to know what had changed and if things hadn t changed we wanted to know why. The micro-business energy market is a complex one and we felt it was crucial to understand more because: the 2007/08 'credit crunch' and subsequent recession and reduction in bank lending has created a very difficult financial climate for small businesses micro-businesses were provided with additional protections on complaint handling under the 2007 Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress (CEAR) Act including the right to take their complaint to the Energy Ombudsman. This has changed the market, mostly for the better. However, there has been an increase in small businesses seeking assistance with debt and disconnection problems. When our Extra Help Unit began operating in late 2008 it was receiving less than 20 cases a month, but by the end of 2010 that figure had more than doubled to over 50. Debt recovery-related cases were running as low as eight a month in December 2008 before climbing to as high as 45 in May They have stayed high since increased protections for micro businesses were introduced as part of the Ofgem Probe in 2010 energy prices for business energy consumers have risen sharply in the last few years making energy bills more of a concern for small businesses and this is expected to continue up to, at least, 2020 as part of the current Retail Market Review Ofgem is proposing to introduce wider protections for small businesses future developments such as Green Deal, smart meters and low-carbon transition have the potential to radically change the energy market for business consumers This report covers the following issues: 1 An overview of the GB business energy market essentially an update on the 2004 assessment to include; switching levels, prices, the state of competition, consumer perceptions, state of redress framework and anything else deemed relevant. 2 Regulation then and now the effects of regulation, both existing and proposed. Has it helped small businesses? Has it reduced competition? How might our 'protection gap' be narrowed? What issues should be tackled as a priority? 3 Competition in the market has it increased or decreased since 2004? What s better, what s not, in terms of choice and access to information about choices? 4 Emerging and future challenges what will the Green Deal, low-carbon transition (including smart meters) mean for prices, competition and contracts? Under the microscope 3

4 The report has provided Consumer Focus with up to date analysis of the business energy market to: 1 Inform our current advocacy work on behalf of micro businesses 3 Inform our work on future developments in the energy market that may affect micro business consumers including smart meters, Green Deal, low carbon transition and the consumer landscape changes. 2 Provide an evidence base for our response to the non domestic proposals in Ofgem s forthcoming Retail Market Review consultations 4 Under the microscope

5 cornwallenergy Micro-business energy markets 2012 A review for Consumer Focus Prepared by: Robert Buckley and Kate Hill

6 Report contents 1 Summary of findings and conclusions Positive aspects Recommendations for Consumer Focus Negative aspects Recommendations for Consumer Focus 7 2 Methodology and approach Terms of reference Process and approach About 8 3 Market overview Basic concepts The energy cost chain Rules and regulation Market structure electricity generation and supply Generation Wholesale trading Networks Taxes and levies Supply Market structure gas production and supply Wholesale markets gas Wholesale trading Networks Taxes and levies Supply 17 4 State of competition in non-domestic supply What are micro-businesses? The micro-business energy market The non-domestic energy market outside micro-businesses 21 5 Terms of trade for supplying non-domestic consumers Negotiated, deemed and out-of-contract supply terms Objections Micro-businesses Renewal and switching Complaints handling and redress Non micro-businesses Consumption provisions Mid-contract changes Credit Third party intermediaries 30 Micro-business energy markets 2

7 6 Energy policy and regulation Development and direction Economic regulation The Electricity and Gas Supply Licences Definition of premises Deemed contracts Micro-businesses Supplier of last resort Consumer transfers Exclusion of cross subsidy Information provision to non-domestic consumers Data for meter readings Ofgem s market investigations Energy Supply Probe Retail Market Review Encouraging liquidity in the wholesale power market Financial services regulation Consumer advocacy 38 7 Consumer views Consumer Direct contact information Contacts in Activity in September Telephone survey of micro-business consumers Awareness and sourcing Engagement with the market Specific features of energy contracts Qualitative comments by micro-business consumers Commentary 54 8 Stakeholder views Level of competition Consequences of micro-business definition Barriers to consumer benefit Role of TPIs Issues for the future 61 9 Comment and conclusions Context Level of competition Consequences of micro-business definition Barriers to consumer benefit Role of TPIs 66 Micro-business energy markets 3

8 9.5.1 Recommendations to Consumer Focus Recommendations to micro-business consumers Challenges for the future 69 Annex 1: Consumer Direct contact codes Annex 2: Organisations contributing to this research Index of figures Figure 3:1: Electricity and Gas Price Breakdowns estimates Figure 7:1: Respondents annual use of energy Figure 7:3: Respondents electricity suppliers Figure 7:5: Type of electricity contract respondent holds Figure 7:7: Actions respondents have taken in the last six months Figure 7:9: Actions taken when reviewing energy arrangements Figure 7:11: Respondents intentions for the next six to 12 months based on their actions in the last six months Figure 7:13: Awareness of respondents that they may be locking into another contract for a year with possibly higher prices or different terms if they do not take any action when they reach the end of their contract Index of tables Table 3:1: Ownership of large-scale power generation capacity by technology May Table 4:1: Non-domestic energy Consumption 2003 and 2010 in the UK Table 4:2: s assessments of non-domestic energy supply contracts that could be held by small businesses Table 4:4: Overview of competition in small businesses gas volumes Table 4:5: s assessments of non-domestic energy supply contracts outside those that could be held by small businesses Table 4:7: Overview of competition outside micro-businesses gas volumes Table 5:1: Consumer Focus s checklist for micro-business energy contracts Table 5:2: Overview of contract price structures for non-micro-business consumers Table 5:3: Consumption provisions in energy supply contracts overview Table 5:4: the UIA s points for non-domestic consumers when dealing with energy TPIs Table 7:1: Contacts from micro-businesses to Consumer Direct Table 7:3: Contacts from micro-businesses to Consumer Direct September Table 7:5: Opinions from micro-businesses on energy supply markets and contracts Table 8:1: Summary of stakeholder views Micro-business energy markets 4

9 Disclaimer While considers that the information and opinions given in this report and all other documentation are sound, all parties must rely upon their own skill and judgement when making use of it. will not assume any liability to anyone for any loss or damage arising out of the provision of this report howsoever caused. The report makes use of information gathered from a variety of sources in the public domain and from confidential research that has not been subject to independent verification. No representation or warranty is given by as to the accuracy or completeness of the information contained in this report. makes no warranties, whether express, implied, or statutory regarding or relating to the contents of this report and specifically disclaims all implied warranties, including, but not limited to, the implied warranties of merchantable quality and fitness for a particular purpose. Heath Farm Cottage Paston North Walsham Norfolk NR28 0SQ T +44 (0) F +44 (0) E Micro-business energy markets 5

10 1 Summary of findings and conclusions This report summarises s findings from research on the state of competition in Britain s non-domestic electricity and gas markets in early We have used research we carried out in 2004 as a baseline. We were commissioned to undertake this research by Consumer Focus, the successor body to energywatch that instigated the 2004 research, and we were asked to concentrate on the micro-business sector as this is where Consumer Focus has a statutory remit. In our opinion there has been a generally positive, though slowly accelerating, improvement in competitiveness in the non-domestic energy market since our baseline report of In the earlier report we observed the sector was following a fitful path towards increased competition, being driven largely by tactical activity by the big six 1 integrated generation and supply companies. However, while the general picture is now healthier, there are several aspects of how the markets are working where we consider Consumer Focus should be concerned enough to take action on behalf of micro-businesses. 1.1 Positive aspects We believe that the electricity and gas markets for non-domestic energy customers including microbusinesses are at their most competitive for some years. We conclude this because: independent competitors to the big six including several recent entrants are now active in all non-domestic market sectors and prominent in a number of them there are some encouraging signs from our independent telephone survey that micro-businesses are becoming more confident in the way they deal in the energy markets a significant number of third party intermediaries (TPIs) are working hard with their services that bring the benefits of competition to micro-businesses that may not otherwise be able to access them new and innovative propositions are emerging from suppliers based on factors that include duration of term, price, smart metering, data reporting and green energy Recommendations for Consumer Focus Consumer Focus can encourage the positive aspects of competition we have identified in the nondomestic market through: using its information and resources to encourage micro-businesses to participate in the market, perhaps through joint campaigns with third parties pressing all suppliers to include basic contract information on each micro-business bill, including anniversary dates, duration of current pricing structure and termination arrangements. The objective of this initiative should be to make it easier for consumers to negotiate new terms with either their existing supplier or a new supplier supporting work by Ofgem designed to ensure suppliers improve overall market competitiveness in, for example, wholesale power market liquidity. The objective of this work should be to encourage more competition amongst suppliers by making access to wholesale product easier, removing barriers to entry to the sector supporting work also by the regulator to enhance transparency and predictability of network charges and policy levies. The objective here should be to minimise the scope for shocks in costs outside a supplier s direct control that they may be forced to pass on to consumers 1 Centrica (British Gas), E.ON UK, EDF Energy, RWE npower, ScottishPower and SSE Micro-business energy markets 6

11 establishing much closer relationships with energy suppliers to micro-businesses outside the big six so that they match the good links the organisation now has with the incumbent players. The objective of this initiative should be for Consumer Focus to improve its understanding of the benefits these companies bring to the market and how they differ from their larger competitors 1.2 Negative aspects While the market overall may be improving, problems do occur. These problems need addressing and centre on: unexpected back-bills for energy consumed but for whatever reason not billed by suppliers. Though they may be infrequent, when they occur back-bills can cause great distress to microbusinesses even to the point we are told of forcing them to close a minority of TPIs causing detriment to businesses by misrepresenting the services they offer and the fees they charge blocked switches where suppliers have contractual rights to stop a consumer switching to a competitor. There have been consistent suspicions that some suppliers may be using this objections right for their own commercial purposes to the detriment of consumers apparently very high deemed and out-of-contract prices for situations when suppliers provide energy to micro-businesses with whom they do not have a negotiated contract perhaps because they are start-ups or because existing arrangements have lapsed apparently high prices contained in some roll-over offers that micro-businesses migrate to automatically should they take no action to renew an existing contract Recommendations for Consumer Focus Consumer Focus can help tackle the negative aspects of competition in the non-domestic market we have identified through: pressing all suppliers to follow the example being set by some suppliers of committing not to levy back-bills on businesses covering periods longer than a year ensuring TPIs serving all non-domestic consumers operate to a minimum good standard by using its influence to ensure that a mandatory, robust and independently-administered code of practice is established as quickly as possible. This code should address TPI commissions and the number of suppliers TPIs work with and be the vehicle to exclude the limited number of rogue TPIs from the market asking Ofgem to make public information on the levels of objections incurred by micro-business consumers of the different suppliers covering blocked departures and blocked acquisitions encouraging Ofgem to investigate the cost-reflectivity of the deemed and out-of-contract prices compared to negotiated contract prices as well as the premiums against competitive prices embodied in some roll-over offers Micro-business energy markets 7

12 2 Methodology and approach Below we set out the approach we have taken in preparing this report. 2.1 Terms of reference In 2004 undertook a study 2 of non-domestic energy supply competition for Consumer Focus s predecessor energywatch. This review consisted of a survey of the non-domestic supply markets as they were then operating with recommendations for energywatch on how it could engage in those markets to improve their workings for consumers. In January 2012, was asked by Consumer Focus to update that study by: commenting on the state of non-domestic electricity and gas competition with a focus on microbusinesses comparing the 2004 and 2011 regulatory regimes for the non-domestic electricity and gas markets updating on the assessments of competitiveness from the 2004 report assessing future drivers and challenges for the non-domestic market in general and microbusinesses in particular This report is the output of our updated research and, where we make comparisons, we reference our 2004 research as the baseline report. It reflects the analysis we have undertaken into the structure and workings of the markets supplying electricity and gas to non-domestic consumers in Britain, especially micro-businesses. We have also taken the opportunity to engage with microbusinesses themselves and many stakeholders to gain an on the ground view of these markets. 2.2 Process and approach We undertook the study through a combination of use of our existing expertise, further desk research, telephone and face-to-face interviews with stakeholders and analysis of data provided to us by Consumer Focus. To supplement our research we also commissioned Perspective Market Research Services to undertake an independent telephone survey of 500 micro-businesses. We have thoroughly updated the market review set out in our 2004 report as a baseline. This review is contained in sections 3, 4, 5 and 6 of this report. Section 7 considers consumer views as recorded firstly by information taken from contacts made by micro-businesses to the Consumer Direct helpline, and secondly as a result of the telephone survey that we commissioned of microbusinesses. Section 8 summarises stakeholder views from suppliers and consumer groups, and section 9 sets out our findings and recommendations. 2.3 About The team are independent energy market specialists with expertise including: regulation and public policy within both electricity and gas markets where our Energy Spectrum newsletter is the industry reference point electricity and gas market governance, business processes and systems energy supply markets, of which we undertake regular share surveys 2 (PDF 913KB) Micro-business energy markets 8

13 3 Market overview In this section we summarise the structure of and level of competition in the non-domestic energy markets. As well as being a major feature of the economy in its own right, Great Britain s competitive energy supply industry is essential to the well-being of companies and the public services. Official figures show that in nominal terms 2010 non-domestic consumers spent 20.8 billion 3 on gas and electricity, some 112 per cent more than the 9.8 billion in 2003 that we referenced in our baseline report proved to be the low point in annual spend by non-domestic consumers. Their bills embarked on a steep upward trajectory to 2008 when 23.0 billion was spent. But, though their spend was increasing, the energy volumes non-domestic consumers were buying were in sharp decline. For the 112 per cent more they spent in 2010 on 2003, non-domestic consumers bought 19 per cent less gas and electricity. This section first of all outlines trends in non-domestic consumers demand for electricity and gas and then provides an explanation of the key functions in the supply chains. By showing the scale of non-domestic electricity and gas requirements defined for the purposes of this analysis as all final use for non-domestic and non-power generation purposes it is intended to demonstrate the importance of the markets in supplying them. It also aims to set the scene for later sections of the report, particularly including the survey and review of stakeholder opinions. 3.1 Basic concepts Today, some 29.4 million 4 electricity and 23.0 million 5 gas customers can participate in competitive energy markets in Great Britain. Of these customers, official figures estimate that some 2.3 million are non-domestic electricity users 6 and 284,100 7 are non-domestic gas users. These markets have evolved from public monopoly to competition since the mid-1980s, often requiring support from policy makers and regulators. Liberalisation has also occurred in energy markets elsewhere, most notably via the European Union s directives to open electricity and gas markets to competition 8. Markets in Great Britain opened for larger users first from 1990 in electricity and at around the same time for gas. For smaller users, markets have been open since the late 1990s. Irrespective of how a competitive offer to supply electricity or gas to a non-domestic customer is presented, in preparing it suppliers will assess separately the different costs in the supply chain, namely: energy costs (including wholesale costs, the supplier s costs of servicing the customer, and its margin) charges for using the delivery networks from the production facility to the customer s meter taxes and levies 3 DECC Dukes Table 1:7 Sum of spend by Industrial and Other users 4 Source: 2009 figures, Digest of United Kingdom Energy Statistics 2011 Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) 5 Source: 2010 figures, Energy Trends December 2011 DECC 6 Ibid 7 Ibid 8 The EU initiative to stimulate electricity supply competition has resulted in three Directives of the European Parliament and of the Council of Ministers concerning common rules for the internal market in electricity. The first, Directive 96/92/EC, was passed in 1996, to be superseded by Directive 2003/54/EC of 26 June In gas, two similar Directives have also resulted: 98/30/EC and 2003/55/EC. The so-called third package adopted by the European Commission in September 2007 resulting in two further directives. See Micro-business energy markets 9

14 Suppliers secure bulk energy volumes to match the customer s requirements typically from competitive wholesale markets. They will also assess their costs in servicing the account and then factor in a profit margin. In the non-domestic sector, suppliers tend to present their offers either as tailored arrangements for larger customers, or as standardised products for smaller users. A breakdown of typical supply costs to smaller and medium users for electricity and gas is shown in Figure 3:1. It shows that the non-energy costs of networks, levies and obligations account for a third of non-domestic power bills and a fifth of non-domestic gas bills. Figure 3:1: Electricity and Gas Price Breakdowns estimates Other Energy & supply p/kwh Electricity - small Electricity - medium Gas - small Gas - medium Prices breakdowns are assessments intended to be representative of typical prices in Great Britain. They are shown exclusive of VAT for one year s supply for arrangements struck during summer 2011 and commencing 1 October 2011 based on delivery charges and taxes current at that date. From the customer s point of view, understanding the pressures on the different cost elements of their bills can be useful in setting their expectations for what they will have to pay for their energy now and in the future. The following paragraphs provide a more detailed overview of the different components of the energy supply chain. 3.2 The energy cost chain Energy is traded by a multiplicity of means at the wholesale level. There are various exchanges and brokers from whom suppliers can source volumes or they may choose to contract direct with producers. Figure 3:2 compares average wholesale gas and electricity baseload annual prices with currency-adjusted oil prices. The first two price markers are critical measures for pricing wholesale energy to non-domestic customers. Baseload provides for the delivery of the same amount of energy every day of the contract period. Figure 3:2 shows that wholesale costs for gas and electricity have been on a volatile but generally rising trend since our baseline report. The time period shown includes our transition to a net gas importer in Now the UK imports nearly half its gas requirements from abroad. From a low point in 2002, British wholesale gas and electricity prices nearly tripled to reach peaks in 2006 before dropping back sharply. Although world energy prices were rising at that time, British wholesale prices rose faster as there was nervousness locally about whether imported gas supplies would flow when needed at peak demand times. A respite in 2007 was short lived as wholesale electricity and gas prices then moved to record highs in summer 2008 at the same time that world commodity markets also surged to peak levels. Micro-business energy markets 10

15 Later in that year rates fell away again as fast as they had risen, to close 2008 very near the levels at which they had started it. Into 2009 wholesale energy rates fell away further, as the global economic slow-down and significant weakening in oil prices (from their highs of 2008) impacted, but with a price upturn occurring through to autumn Aside from trends in related fuel and carbon markets, experience in recent years has shown that British wholesale gas and electricity markets can be influenced by: short-term difficulties at production facilities (eg power stations or offshore gas fields) technical difficulties, constraining bulk energy flows (eg an outage in interconnection facilities restricting cross-border trade) weather, triggering unexpected demand conditions either in Britain or elsewhere through interconnections with north-west Europe perceptions of the longer-term demand and supply balances, most notably: o o o fears during 2007 and 2008 that there might be global energy shortages if demand continued to increase at then historically high rates fears during 2009 especially that the economic downturn had stolen up to five years of demand increases, with the implication that consumption in some markets might not return to 2008 levels for some time in 2010 commercial exploitation of shale gas in the United States would transform the global supply outlook for that fuel from one of expected shortfall to significant surplus actions by producers to invest in, or close, capacity the actions of traders, funds and other financial market participants especially currency traders as international energy commodities are traded in dollars and carbon in euros changes in government or regulatory policy Figure 3:2: Annual average crude oil and wholesale gas and power prices Gas (p/th), Elec ( /MWh), Oil ( /bl) Gas Power baseload Oil ($/bl) Source: Micro-business energy markets 11

16 3.3 Rules and regulation The framework for competitive energy markets is laid down in legislation. For electricity the key legislation is the Electricity Act 1989 (as amended by the Utilities Act 2000, the Energy Acts of 2004, 2008, 2010 and 2011). This legislation requires that companies operating in the electricity market are licensed for the separate activities of generation, transmission, interconnection, distribution and supply. For gas the key legislation is the Gas Act 1986 as amended by the Competition and Services (Utilities) Act 1992, the Gas (Exempt Supplies) Act 1993, the Gas Act 1995, the Competition Act 1998 and the Utilities Act The Gas Act 1986 (as amended) requires that all companies operating in the gas market either seek licences or seek an exemption. Under the Gas Act 1995, gas transportation, shipping (arranging for gas to flow through pipes) and supply activities are licensed separately. Under legislation the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority (GEMA) has been established as the independent regulator. GEMA forms the board of the regulator with the Office of Gas and Electricity (Ofgem) as the executive office. Ofgem is responsible for issuing licences in accordance with regulations that require financial standing and technical competence to be considered. The approach to market design is consistent for gas and electricity. Under the licence regime, companies that own and operate networks are required to put in place central contracts or codes that govern physical and commercial terms of access. Companies that wish to have access to these wires and pipelines must sign on to these codes and abide by their terms. The principal codes are for: electricity: o o o the Balancing and Settlement Code (BSC) allocates wholesale market volumes and puts a value on uncontracted trades to ensure the system operates safely the Connection and Use of System Code (CUSC) governs the commercial terms for access to the transmission network the Distribution Connection and Use of System Agreement (DCUSA) governs the terms for access to the distribution networks gas the Uniform Network Code (UNC) governs balancing and access to the transmission and distribution networks 3.4 Market structure electricity generation and supply The British electricity market is characterised by a small number of large companies that are active in both generation and supply to customers. This big six group of large suppliers is being joined by an increasing number of competitors, some of which are also active in both generation and supply and several of which focus on renewables Generation Electricity is mainly produced from nearly 75GW of large-scale generating capacity connected to the transmission network. The dominant generation capacities are fired by coal, gas or nuclear energy. Three interconnectors link the British market to the Netherlands (1GW capacity), France (2GW) and Ireland (500MW). Additionally there is a further 10GW of smaller-scale generating capacity, much of which is provided by renewable sources, including wind and biomass as well as combined heat and power (CHP) at non-domestic premises. This capacity is connected to the distribution networks and can be referred to as embedded or distributed generation. Large-scale generating capacity in Great Britain is owned by more than 10 companies, but nearly three quarters of large-scale capacity is now in the hands of the big six, as shown in Table 3:1. Micro-business energy markets 12

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