Navigant Research Blog

Consumer Choice in the UK Energy Market: The Year of the Tracker Tariff

— July 11, 2017

A year ago, I wrote a two-part blog post (part one and part two) about the surge in consumer choices in the United Kingdom’s energy market. A lot has happened since those articles were written—the second of which was published on the same day as the Brexit referendum results.

Energy price hikes made headlines over the 2016/2017 winter, as five of the Big Six energy suppliers (EDF, E.ON, SSE, British Gas, Scottish Power, and Npower) raised prices by 8%-15%. British Gas was the only exception, promising to hold prices until at least August 2017. These increases put a political spotlight on energy prices during the country’s general election in June—during which even the Conservative Party (generally associated with free market policies) proposed energy price caps.

The Year of the Tracker Tariff

Although the political debate has not devolved into any specific energy policies yet, small energy suppliers and new entrants (such as Octopus Energy, Pure Planet, and ENGIE) have used the price hikes as an opportunity to launch a new class of energy tariff: the tracker.

Prior to May 2017 (when the first tracker was launched), consumers in the United Kingdom could opt for either a standard variable rate (SVR) or a fixed price rate:

  • SVR: In a SVR tariff, the unit price of electricity can go up or down at any time. The supplier must notify the consumer of price rises (and of any other changes to the consumer’s disadvantage) but the price charged is completely at the supplier’s discretion. This is the most basic offering from energy suppliers and it is usually their most expensive. Consumers usually end up on this tariff after a fixed contract expires.
  • Fixed price rate: In a fixed price tariff, the unit price of electricity is agreed upon at the beginning of the contract and remains fixed for a certain period (often 12 months in the United Kingdom). This fixed price is usually below the SVR.

Energy suppliers have been criticized by Ofgem (the United Kingdom energy regulator) for widening the difference between their best rates and their SVRs. So, in a bid to win consumer’s trust through improved transparency, a few energy suppliers have launched tracker tariffs.

Retail Price Comparison by Company and Tariff Type: Domestic (Great Britain)

(Source: Ofgem)

Tracker tariffs resemble SVR tariffs in that the price the consumer pays for electricity changes with time; unlike SVRs, the price is not discretionary. Instead, it is linked to the average wholesale electricity price on the day of consumption.

The precise structure of the tracker varies from supplier to supplier. For example, Octopus Energy charges a fixed standing charge per day and then the wholesale price plus transmission and distribution costs, other regulated costs, taxes, and a fixed margin per kilowatt-hour consumed. Another supplier, Pure Planet, charges a fixed membership fee that includes all non-energy related costs and then wholesale prices for each kilowatt-hour consumed (100% renewable, in this case). ENGIE, the last of the companies offering tracker rates, has not yet disclosed how its tariff will be structured.

It is too early to judge whether consumers will embrace trackers or if they will prefer the certainty of fixed price rates. Perhaps the majority of consumers simply do not care enough about energy contracts and will continue to pay SVRs. Regardless, trackers are a step toward a residential energy as a service product. This is especially true of Pure Planet’s offering: by incorporating its margin into the fixed component of the bill, it is in a position to offer add-on services that increase comfort—or reduce energy consumption—without sacrificing profit margin.

 

Losing Net Neutrality: End of IoT or Boon for the Edge?

— June 14, 2017

The Trump administration is on the road to making net neutrality a thing of the past. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) leadership are positioning to undo regulations that have laid the foundation for how consumers access the Internet. The risk is that without this regulation, Internet service providers can delineate variable fees and Internet speeds when accessing certain websites as a means of protectionism. In May, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai articulated the administration’s view that Obama-led rules are not protections for online retailers and consumers, but rather, a “bureaucratic straightjacket.” This new FCC-led sentiment and the expectation they will follow through with actions to dismantle net neutrality laws this summer have inspired a Day of Action protest on July 12 with the likes of Etsy, Kickstarter, and Mozilla. Impassioned executives have explained the importance of net neutrality. General Council at Kickstarter stated “A threat to net neutrality is a threat to the free exchange of ideas that creative culture and an informed public rely upon.”

The FCC’s Open Internet Order is the rule supported by the Obama administration in 2015 that protected net neutrality on the precedence of anti-monopoly oversight of the telecom industry. The 400-page tome is dense, but the intention is clear in line one: “The open Internet drives the American economy and serves, every day, as a critical tool for America’s citizens to conduct commerce, communicate, educate, entertain, and engage in the world around them.” Industry concerns are clear. The Republican-led opposition to net neutrality is a paradox; while it may be positioned to eliminate government intervention in commerce, the loss of this regulation will be a direct blow on today’s most vital free market: the Internet.

Hit to IoT?

An article in Wired outlines what the end of net neutrality could mean for the Internet of Things (IoT): “Dismissing the rules could be a big problem for the future of the Internet of Things, since companies like Comcast—which is already working on its own smart home platform—certainly have the motivation to create fast and slow lanes for particular gadgets and services. If your Internet provider can decide which personal assistant or smart home gadgets you can or can’t use, the broadband can dictate the winners and losers in the Internet of Things race. That wouldn’t bode well for competition, innovation, or you.”

Also, Bad for Business?

IoT has become a central theme in the intelligent buildings market. The capacity to deploy low cost devices to gather and communicate near or real-time data has opened the door to innovation in how commercial buildings are managed and even viewed as business assets. IoT intelligent building offerings can reduce energy costs, streamline operations and maintenance, and redefine occupant engagement. Many of the leading offerings deliver value through a core analytics component utilizing cloud computing. The attack on net neutrality could take a blow at the intelligent building in a similar way to the smart home as explained by Wired. However, even if the FCC wins this fight, the future for intelligent buildings is still bright—what may change is who the winners are.

A Boost for the Edge: The Smart Gateway to the Rescue

Large technology players including Cisco, Dell, Intel, and Qualcomm have been making waves in the intelligent market with hybrid offerings that shift the intelligence of the solution to a mix of cloud and edge computing. This delegation of computing can lessen the blow of the FCC’s action and protect the momentum of the intelligent buildings market. The future of IoT and intelligent buildings is contingent on technology partnerships. I would argue that if we lose net neutrality, the role of IT majors in the market may become that much more vital.

 

100% Renewable Energy by 2050

— May 15, 2017

In April 2017, the City of Portland and Multnomah County in Oregon committed to 100% renewable energy by the year 2050. Ted Wheeler, the mayor of Portland, said, “While it is absolutely ambitious, it is a goal that we share with Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Google, GM, Coca Cola, Johnson & Johnson, and Walmart. We have a responsibility to lead this effort in Oregon.” Other cities in the United States have also committed to renewable goals. Chicago, for example, has committed to 100% renewables for its municipal buildings and operations by 2025. Renewable goals are often tied with increased efficiency in buildings, as this assists in reducing the overall needed energy production, making it easier to rely more heavily on renewables.

At a National Level

Following in footsteps of Portland’s ambitious goal, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley (D), Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders (I), and Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey (D) introduced legislation for the United States to reach 100% renewables by 2050. This 100 by 50 Act creates a plan for 50% of US electricity to be generated by renewables by 2030 and 100% by 2050. Additionally, it would require zero carbon emissions vehicle standards and ban government approval of oil & gas pipelines.

Both Merkley and Sanders understand the importance of local initiatives to propel these aggressive renewable energy goals into reality for the country as a whole. “Starting at a local, grassroots level and working toward the bold and comprehensive national vision laid out in this legislation, now is the time to commit to 100% by 2050,” said Merkley. Sanders already sees these changes occurring, and he believes in the importance of not being limited: “In Vermont and all over this country, we are seeing communities moving toward energy efficiency and we are seeing the price of renewable energy plummet. Our job is to think big, not small.”

The 100 by 50 Act is the first legislation introduced to Congress aimed to completely eliminate fossil fuels for the United States. While it is unlikely such a progressive proposal like this will initially pass, it opens the doors to additional discussions and ideas. The declining costs of renewables provide further incentive to assist in a shift toward greater reliance on renewable energy, such as solar and wind power. Local community initiatives and the individual sustainability goals of leading US companies are helping create a future that does rely 100% on renewable energy. Coupled with these siloed goals, members of Congress will continue to push toward more encompassing legislation, though it will inevitably be a long and trying endeavor.

 

Can Batteries Save the UK Solar Market?

— April 27, 2017

Last week, E.ON and EDF Energy both announced plans to launch solar plus storage programs for their UK residential customers. E.ON and EDF are two of Europe’s largest energy providers, and EDF is a large owner of coal, gas, and nuclear plants in the United Kingdom with a 13 GW portfolio.

EDF Energy has formed a joint venture with Lightsource, the largest solar operator in the United Kingdom, to launch Sunplug, a company that will be offering residential solar. Sunplug has indicated two contracting options for its systems:

  • One option will be to sign an index-linked, 20-year power purchase agreement with an initial price of £0.099/kWh ($0.123/kWh). Assuming 2% escalation over 20 years, this would average to £0.12/kWh. For comparison, the cheapest electricity tariff in the United Kingdom costs £0.12/kWh or £0.15/kWh ($0.15/kWh or $0.19/kWh) with or without fixed monthly costs, respectively. In this option, Sunplug is the owner of the system and receives any government incentives available to the installation and is responsible for any changes to it.
  • Sunplug’s second option will be a direct purchase for £7,999 ($9,999) that includes the equipment (5 kW PV system, inverter, and 6.6 kWh battery), 2-year labor cover, operations and maintenance, and a 2-year license for its home energy management system—but does not include installation or value added tax.

E.ON’s offerings are less clear, but the direct purchase for a typical system will start at £7,495 ($9,368) including the battery, or £4,495 ($5,618) for the PV system only.

The Economics of Self-Consumption

An interesting question is why both utilities decided to enter the UK residential market with solar plus storage programs rather than only solar. A key driver is the current regulatory environment, which has elevated the attractiveness of self-consumption in the UK solar market.

In the United Kingdom, a residential solar system can currently access the following revenue streams:

  • Generation tariff: This is paid for every kilowatt-hour generated, regardless of its destination. It is currently set at £0.0414/kWh ($0.05/kWh) and is indexed to the UK inflation rate.
  • Export tariff: In theory, this is paid for the electricity exported to the grid. For the time being, the government assumes that half of the kilowatt-hours generated are exported for installations smaller than 30 kW. Currently, the export tariff is set at £0.053 ($0.066).
  • Self-consumption: This is the customer’s bill reduction due to the avoided electricity consumption from the grid. In a northern European country, residential customers are typically only able to use about 20%-30% of the electricity produced by their own solar system without any storage or significant behavioral changes. Assuming 20% self-consumption and an electricity tariff of £0.12/kWh ($0.15/kWh), a solar system owner would save the equivalent of £0.024/kWh ($0.03/kWh) generated.

Taking these revenue streams into account, a residential solar owner with 20% self-consumption would receive £0.09 per kWh ($0.11/kWh) generated, whereas an owner with 100% self-consumption would receive £0.186 per kWh ($0.23/kWh) generated, 106% more. Of course, a battery would be necessary to achieve total self-consumption for a reasonably sized residential system. Using E.ON’s figures, the battery cost is £3,000 ($3,750). In other words, to earn 106% more per kilowatt-hour, the owner would need to invest only 67% more than the solar-only system—not a bad deal!

 UK Solar PV Plus Storage Revenue Streams

(Source: Navigant Research)

 

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