ACCC report on electricity affordability, competition issues

The ACCC has published a preliminary report into the electricity market highlighting significant concerns about the operation of the National Electricity Market, which is leading to serious problems with affordability for consumers and businesses.

The Retail Electricity Pricing Inquiry preliminary report details the ACCC’s initial assessment of information it has gathered including documents and data from industry, consumers, businesses, representative groups and other government and non-government organisations.

The inquiry received over 150 submissions since it began in April. According to the report, the ACCC heard directly from consumers, businesses and other stakeholders at public forums in Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Sydney, and Townsville.

“It’s no great secret that Australia has an electricity affordability problem. What’s clear from our report is that price increases over the past ten years are putting Australian businesses and consumers under unacceptable pressure,” ACCC chairman Rod Sims said.

“Consumers have been faced with increasing pressures to their household budgets as electricity prices have skyrocketed in recent years. Residential prices have increased by 63 per cent on top of inflation since 2007-08.”

The report states that the main cause of higher customer bills was the significant increase in network costs for all states other than South Australia. In South Australia, generation costs represented the highest increase. There was a much larger increase in the effect of retail costs in Victoria than in other states. Retail margins increased significantly in NSW, but decreased in others.

“The main reason customers’ electricity bills have gone up is due to higher network costs, a fact which is not widely recognised. To a lesser extent, increasing green costs and retailer costs also contributed,” Sims said.

“We estimate that higher wholesale costs during 2016-17 contributed to a $167 increase in bills. The wholesale (generation) market is highly concentrated and this is likely to be contributing to higher wholesale electricity prices,” Sims said.

The ACCC estimates that in 2016-17, Queenslanders will be paying the most for their electricity, followed by South Australians and people living in NSW. Victorians will have the lowest electricity bills. This is due to a range of factors including usage patterns in various states, including the prevalence of gas usage in Victoria in particular.

The closure of large baseload coal generation plants has seen gas-powered generation becoming the marginal source of generation more frequently, particularly in South Australia. Higher gas prices have contributed to increasing electricity prices.

The report also said that the “big three” vertically integrated gentailers, AGL, Origin, and EnergyAustralia, continue to hold large retail market shares in most regions, and control in excess of 60 per cent of generation capacity in NSW, South Australia, and Victoria making it difficult for smaller retailers to compete.

The ACCC has heard many examples of the difficulties that consumers and small businesses face in engaging with the retail electricity market and the particular difficulties faced by vulnerable consumers and will also seek to identify ways to mitigate the effect of past decisions around network investments on retail electricity prices, noting that many past decisions  are ‘locked-in’ and will burden electricity users for many years to come.

“We will provide recommendations for reform in our final report, which will be provided to the Treasurer in June 2018,” Mr Sims said.