A shock to the system for energy retailers

The electricity retail market is undergoing a seachange, which will challenge the big three gentailers and smaller players alike.

If you want to know who is really trying on the domestic energy scene as 2015 kicks off, the answer is the retailers.

Others are flat out dealing with their issues, but they are mostly on the back foot.

East coast power generators are battling with a market choked with too much supply and have little cause for optimism, given the inability of the Abbott government and the federal Labor opposition to reach a landing on the future of the renewable energy target.

Eastern Australian network businesses are confronted by a regulatory regime in suppression mode, reacting to political knees jerking over power price rises by slashing into their bids for revenue from now to 2019. In New South Wales and Queensland, given expected Coalition victories in looming state elections, network businesses will also be challenged by governments that are aiming to sell them to the highest (and probably foreign) bidders.

As for east coast domestic gas suppliers, 2015 promises to be more of the same, as two state governments (NSW and Victoria) vacillate over new onshore development in the face of rural and environmental backlashes with no prospect of delivering continuing low prices because of the cost of production as well as the impact of Queensland LNG developments.

This leaves the electricity retail game, where the big three gentailers AGL Energy, EnergyAustralia and Origin Energy are not only vying fiercely with each other to capture customers but are now warding off a growing number of smaller players chewing on their market share.

Market analysts see the Big Three as under substantial threat from a new wave of retailers. This is because the National Energy Customer Framework, applicable in three states (not including Victoria and Queensland) and the ACT, allows incomers to pursue customers across jurisdictional boundaries.

This is a seachange in the market. In the past, the regulatory environment has encouraged the Big Three, plus more recently Snowy Hydro, to swallow smaller retail players.

It is possible that some of the new participants are actually living in hope that, if they succeed in capturing a niche in the market, they, too will be made an offer they can’t refuse as the big businesses fight back over the rest of this decade.

The new players are seen to be aided and abetted by customer unhappiness over sharp rises in their bills -- the product of surging network charges and green subsidies imposed by politicians -- but it is the company with its name on the invoice that incurs the odium.

The extent to which mass market customers are cross with their power suppliers is open to debate.

Those who want to make a big deal out of it point to the rising complaints to state ombudsmen. For example, some 30,000 approaching the ombudsman in NSW in 2013-14 with 78 per cent of complaints directed against the Big Three. (That’s not surprising when you consider they share 77 per cent of the market.)

But there are some three million residential customers in NSW.

The Australian Energy Market Commission, which is undertaking annual reviews of competition in the east coast power markets at the behest of CoAG, has just launched a new one. In its first canvass (last year), it found that consumers are “generally happy” with their retailer experience.

The market analysts believe customer unrest is providing opportunity for new retailers, arguing that it is much easier to keep a few thousand happy than a million or more.

They point to a 2 per cent decline in market share for the top three in the most recent data to support their view that shift is happening.

The other side of the coin is that the large retailers are not sitting still under these pinprick attacks. How nimble they can be and how they can leverage their advantages is an open question.

Mass market customers are certainly well aware that they are in a new environment.

The AEMC’s 2014 survey found that 90 per cent of consumers know they can now choose their retailer and 40 per cent have actively pursued making a change, with 28 per cent actually switching provider.

This, the commission points out, means that Australians are shopping around more for electricity (and gas) than they are for insurance, telephone and Internet providers.

There are a raft of other factors at play in the electricity market -- how much further the household solar PV take-up will go and whether politicians can be persuaded to change network tariffs to make solar users pay the true cost of their delivery service are just two, even if they tend to create a loud debate. But for the vast majority of the eight million residential accountholders on the east coast, a key question this year is: “Who do I want to look after my power supply?”

How they respond is a multi-million dollar issue for retailers large and small.

Keith Orchison, director of consultancy Coolibah Pty Ltd and editor of OnPower, was chief executive of two national energy associations from 1980 to 2003. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the energy industry in 2004.