Energy firms’ profits surge as households left in the cold

Weeks of autumn profit announcements by energy firms have come at the same time as data from the Warm This Winter campaign found that over a third (38%) of people from vulnerable households think they won’t or may not be able to afford to put the heating on at all this winter.

Among the recent announcements were National Grid, which posted profits of hundreds of millions of pounds in their distribution and transmission businesses. SSE also declared  £335m profits in similar parts of its company.

A large part of these profits come from the firms’ role as Distribution Network Operators (DNO) for electricity, which customers pay for through Standing Charges. In practice, it means that these firms can vary the cost of bills for people across different regions it provides electricity to.

For example, in the East Midlands, National Grid customers have the cheapest energy in the UK, but households it serves in south west England are paying £75 more every year in standing charges.

Ofgem has now announced an investigation into Standing Charges and a spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition commented:

“The announcement of a Standing Charges review is a welcome step forward. Recent Warm This Winter Tariff Watch reports have highlighted how we need much more transparency in how our energy bills are calculated and the factors that go into calculating what is seen as a fair tariff.”

Another firm which benefits from Standing Charges is Scottish Power which is both an energy distributor and a supplier to households. Its Madrid-based parent company Iberdrola posted profits of 3.4bn Euros for the first nine months of 2023.

The supplier, which was previously named and shamed by Ministers as the worst culprit for forcibly installing prepayment meters, was recently granted 124 warrants for forcible PPMs in a move that has sparked concern among campaigners and politicians.

Jonathan Bean from Fuel Poverty Action, said:

“Firms are celebrating bumper profits whilst energy firms continue their plotting to restart the abhorrent process of breaking into homes to install prepayment meters

“It’s yet another example of firms profiting from misery.”

As research for Warm This Winter found that among those badly affected by the energy bills crisis are pregnant mothers and young families, all aspects of the energy industry have enjoyed a profits bonanza.

BP announced £2.7bn profit and Shell reported over £5bn profits.

Shell was recently offered 10 of the new 27 oil and gas licences in the North Sea by the Government. However, an audit of production data by analysts at Uplift found that across the hundreds of licences offered by UK governments since 2010, just 16 days of new gas has been delivered to the grid – half of which was sent to the Netherlands.

Equally, Norwegian firm Equinor’s profits continued to soar – up to £6.6bn according to the latest results. The company will also enjoy a tax break from the UK Government for its controversial Rosebank field.

Reporters at Bloomberg concluded that this field won’t begin pumping oil and gas until at least 2026, and it isn’t large enough to have an impact on the security of UK energy supply or prices

Fi Waters, spokesperson for the Warm This Winter said:

“These profits are shocking as 38% of vulnerable households say they cannot afford to put the heating on at all this winter. That’s pregnant women, the elderly, families with young kids and people with long term illness.

“The Government must step in and provide a consistent Help to Repay scheme for households in energy debt and an Emergency Energy Tariff guarantee which is available to all vulnerable households, regardless of supplier.”

The Emergency Energy Tariff would use the existing Energy Price Guarantee mechanism to fix the unit costs and standing charges for vulnerable groups at a lower level. Campaigners have suggested that this is fixed at the levels of energy bills in winter 2020/21, which would see eligible households’ monthly energy bills reduced by approximately £87 a month from current levels – a saving of around 46%.

Proposals for such a move are backed by 83% of the public and the initial research to inform the development of the Emergency Energy Tariff and targeting of support was undertaken by the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute and Cambridge Architectural Research.

Dr Tina Fawcett, Associate Professor, University of Oxford:

“Our research has helped identify how to effectively target vital support to households most at risk this winter. To avoid future energy bill crises, locally we need more investment in energy efficiency and energy advice, and nationally we must rapidly reduce our dependence on fossil fuels.”

The public can sign the petition supporting an Emergency Energy Tariff online:

Advice workers and charities could benefit after new Ofgem rules

Energy suppliers must prioritise enquiries from vulnerable customers and their representatives, under new rules announced by Ofgem. 

A recent report [paragraph 36] by the House of Commons Select Committee on Energy Security, called for firms to set up a priority access line for charities working with households in fuel poverty. This would enable advice workers to access enhanced customer service and enable them to help more people in the long run.

Roni Marsh from South West London Law Centres gave evidence [Q42] to the Committee in September and told MPs:

“I would like to ask for us to have priority access to some of the energy firms, not so that we can spend less time with people but so that we can see more people with the time we have with a priority support route.”

Now under the new Ofgem rules [p8], energy firms have an obligation to “prioritise vulnerable customers who need immediate support, or their representatives acting on their behalf.”

Energy firms now have until the 14th December to put these measures in place.

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, whose members include front line community organisations, commented:

“Thousands of hours of advice time is wasted each year by charities waiting on hold to speak to energy firms about the problems faced by the people they support. We expect energy firms to make good on the promises they made to MPs on the Commons Energy Select Committee before this winter.”

The requirements also require suppliers to contact customers if they miss two monthly or one quarterly payment, check to see if they are struggling with bills and, if so, offer support such as affordable payment plans or, if appropriate, repayment holidays. 

Recent research by a price comparison website found that almost one in seven people say they have gone from being in credit to their energy firm a year ago to owing money now.

And as a first step, suppliers will also need to publish the ratings of their customer service. Ofgem will also begin work with the sector to develop new measures of customer service with a view to publishing next year.

Warm This Winter campaign spokesperson, Fi Waters said: 

“Suppliers need to get their act together and give customers the service they deserve. Our Tariff Watch Report revealed companies are charging £242 on average per customer on operating costs.

“Instead of spending the same amount on customer service as they do on marketing, which includes football sponsorship, they should plough that back into providing a proper and effective service for the ordinary people they are making millions from. 

“Whilst we welcome any move from Ofgem to make suppliers more accountable, what Warm This Winter is demanding is an end to our broken energy system and current government inaction that is costing lives, damaging health and wasting money.” 

Jonathan Bean of Fuel Poverty Action said:

“Ofgem’s proposals are a weak response to the awful treatment that many customers suffer.  Vulnerable people are forced to battle for months, causing enormous harm. 

“Rather than punishing them for their failures, Ofgem may even allow energy firms to increase their already bloated operating cost allowances.”

The End Fuel Poverty Coalition spokesperson added:

“It’s not enough for energy firms to just pick up the phone to customers struggling with their bills. With soaring energy debt levels, people need to have their concerns dealt with efficiently and in a sympathetic manner.

“We hope that as the new guidance is implemented, Ofgem will expand the measures it uses to assess energy firms’ performance. As well as ‘contact ease’ being measured and published, the regulator should also consider ‘contact success’ and ‘contact empathy’ as measures of performance for energy firms.”

The new standards – developed following a statutory consultation this summer – aim to make it easier for customers to contact their suppliers, ensure households who are struggling with bills are supported and improve overall customer satisfaction. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition’s response to the consultation can be read online [pdf].

The introduction of the new rules into supplier license conditions means Ofgem claims it will be easier for the regulator to take action where there is evidence of suppliers failing to meet these requirements. 

Plans to axe energy Windfall Tax branded premature

The Government has set out plans to wind down the Windfall Tax on energy firms in response to demands from the industry.

Analysts from Uplift told Sky News that the introduction of this price floor will further undermine an already weak windfall tax and paving the way for further oil and gas extraction.

The Energy Profits Levy already contained a loophole which could have helped tackle fuel poverty last winter, as well as acting as a handout to the fossil fuel industry with the UK government expected to give highly profitable oil & gas companies £11.4 billion in tax breaks to develop new fields.

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition, commented:

“Energy bills are predicted to remain high and levels of household energy debt are still surging.

“Any talk of reducing or ending the windfall tax while millions still struggle through the energy bills crisis is premature.

“The Government should keep all options on the table to ensure the funding is available to fix Britain’s broken energy system into the long term.”

The decision has been described as shortsighted in light of the lack of long-term certainty about energy bills and Greenpeace UK’s climate campaigner, Georgia Whitaker, said:

“The Government’s windfall tax on oil and gas companies already contains more loopholes than a block of Swiss cheese. And now they want to scrap it altogether.”

Energy firms cash in on cost of living crisis

Energy firms have been cashing in on the energy bills crisis as Shell has held its AGM.

In the first three months of the year alone, Shell made a profit of more than £7.6bn. BP have also recorded bumper profits, enjoying one of the company’s best ever starts to the year. Despite the windfall tax, energy firms have still been able to profit from the misery of people living in cold damp homes.

National Grid, the firm which runs the energy network, similarly reported a boost in annual profits to £4.6bn. This had led to calls for a higher windfall tax for energy companies. 

Scotland-based energy firm SSE’s profits have also rocketed to £2.53bn.

To put these profits into context, Energy UK estimated that the current energy debt in the UK has soared to around £3.6bn. Profits from the National Grid alone could completely wipe out energy debt for the entire country.

Meanwhile, a groundbreaking report from One Earth has calculated that fossil fuel companies owe at least $209bn in annual climate reparations to compensate communities which are suffering climate catastrophes as a direct result of global warming.

A spokesperson for the End Fuel Poverty Coalition commented: 

“The scare stories from industry about the impact of the windfall tax on energy firms have not materialised, with more massive profits being posted. Meanwhile the Ofgem Price Cap is set to keep household energy levels at historic highs.

“Closing the energy firms’ windfall tax loophole could have almost eradicated fuel poverty last winter, but instead people suffered in cold damp homes. 

“Now we are seeing the first signs that energy suppliers – as well as the producers – will be cashing in on the energy bills crisis with fixed term energy deals designed to boost their profits.”