Electricity Price Review - Executive Summary

 

Introduction

Energy, along with water, food and shelter, is critical to any society and economy. To succeed, it must satisfy three key criteria: reliability, price and renewability. None of these factors can be considered alone.

We agree with the EPR panel that consumers are increasingly motivated by renewability, though reliability and price remain superior drivers 1.

Renewability is a key focus for the government’s Interim Climate Change Committee.

Mercury welcomes the EPR panel’s analysis which supports the International Energy Agency’s 2017 assessment that New Zealand is a “…world leading example of a well-functioning electricity market, which continues to work effectively.” 2

Since the panel released its report, New Zealand has moved up one place in international rankings to 8th out of 130 countries in the world for its performance in achieving balance in the trilemma of energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability 3.

New Zealand, the only non-European country to be in the top 10, would be potentially be higher were it not for its heavy reliance on fossil fuel imports.


Delivering energy infrastructure involves long-term and highly complex investment decisions from private capital.

New Zealand’s market framework has been fundamentally similar since the mid-1990s, a path that was set in train when an influential Treasury report provided evidence that the distortions to the economy from over-spend on hydro generation projects was unsustainable for New Zealand 4.

Other countries are seeking to replicate New Zealand’s performance. However some, like Australia and the United Kingdom, are struggling as attempts to promote renewability have led to detrimental consequences for reliability and consumer prices.

It is very difficult to achieve the trilemma performance of New Zealand.

 
Electricity market competition in New Zealand has delivered for the vast majority of consumers.

This has been underpinned by investments by vertically integrated companies that have enabled the substantial innovation and competition in our retail and generation markets that we now take for granted.

This includes the roll-out of smart metering infrastructure funded by large retailers and liquidity in the futures and financial transmission rights market provided by large generators.

Substantial upgrades to our transmission system have also reduced retail risk enabling greater competition to occur.
 
However, markets are not perfect. At the edges, they can struggle to deliver, though that doesn’t mean that the market model is wrong.

Rather it requires careful and impartial analysis of the issues to identify the highest value measures to complement the market and ensure it continues to be sustainable into the future.

 

The need to focus on affordability, not price

There appears to be confusion in the New Zealand narrative as to the difference between price (“electricity is expensive”) and affordability (“can’t afford energy needs”).

New Zealand’s electricity prices are ranked 12th lowest in the OECD.

The competitive components have declined in real terms by 4% over the past five years.

Electricity in New Zealand, largely renewable, is also the equivalent of 30 cents per litre compared to a pre-tax price of petrol at circa $1.50.

In other countries, renewable electricity has had to be subsidised with significant upward impacts on electricity bills – not so in New Zealand.

This makes New Zealand’s relative retail price position, in a small islanded market without access to large continental transmission grids and with a very sub-scale set of distribution companies, all the more remarkable.

 

Affordability

The key issue is affordability. Affordability is determined by the income level of a household and the costs that household faces to meet its energy needs (e.g. for space heating, hot water, cooking and lighting).

The costs that a household faces are determined primarily by the price and the quantity of electricity consumed. Price has been covered above.

To heat a poorly insulated home to an acceptable temperature requires a lot of energy, irrespective of the fuel source used.

In stark contrast to our low electricity prices New Zealand has the 6th highest household consumption in the OECD.

As the EPR First Report notes, 55% of households in New Zealand lack adequate insulation.


The second key issue for affordability is the excessive seasonal variability of electricity bills, due largely again to heating of poorly insulated homes.

A household’s income typically does not change seasonally. While higher electricity usage means a higher bill, such bills are higher than they need to be due to excessive variabilisation of distribution lines charges (i.e. lines charges in New Zealand are mostly charged on a per kilowatt hour basis, so the more electricity you use, the more lines charges you pay).

This puts huge seasonal pressure on household budgets and sends poor signals which have been estimated could cost consumers $1.8 billion over the next 20 years leading to inefficient investment in new technologies that will unfairly shift costs to the most vulnerable consumers.


A third key issue for affordability is household incomes.

New Zealand’s wage levels are 10th lowest in the OECD, well below the average and that of Australia and the UK.

This has implications for the most vulnerable consumers in affording energy services (and any other essentials such as housing, food and transport).

The Electricity Pricing Review panel’s evidence suggests the social welfare payments have not kept pace with the costs for low income households.

 

Pricing analysis can be misleading

It is essential to maintaining New Zealand’s balanced trilemma rating that statements regarding the sector and its performance reflect the above key issues and facts.

Significant and often deliberate mis-information regarding the causes of price increases in both Australia and UK have resulted in serious challenges for long-term investment and capital attraction.

As an example, one of the first statements in the EPR First Report was that since 1990 electricity prices have increased 79% above the rate of inflation. This led to perceptions that somehow consumers have been “ripped off”.

However, basing pricing analysis from 1990 is misleading given the significant changes in the structure, regulation and market design of the industry since that period from a structure that, frankly, was unsustainable.

Price increases above inflation since 1990 reflect the fact that residential consumers paid practically nothing for the costs of the distribution network prior to this period.

They were beneficiaries of a significant cross subsidy which was also unfair.

 

The positive outlook for energy costs

Looking forward, material household energy (as opposed to just electricity) cost savings will be enabled by future investment in renewable generation required to meet New Zealand’s climate change targets, through a transition to electric vehicles and renewable process heat.

Electricity is currently five times less expensive than the pre-tax price of petrol.

The electricity market will deliver the $20 billion required generation investment if we continue with stable policy settings and avoid subsidies which have driven up costs and had very damaging unintended consequences overseas.


Mercury supports the EPR panel’s concern that targeting 100% renewable electricity would be expensive and make the transition to electric vehicles and renewable process heat harder.

We do not believe achieving 100% renewable electricity is viable, given the ongoing requirement for deep energy storage which batteries cannot and will not solve, ever.

It is theoretically feasible though would require either expanding lake storage by at least 50% and/or retaining back-up thermal generation5.

For this reason, Mercury has consistently called for bi-partisan support for a national low carbon energy rather than a renewable electricity target, given the increasing substitution between electricity and fossil fuels for households, industry and transport.

 

Towards targeted solutions for vulnerable consumers

Some consumers, particularly the most vulnerable, may be missing out on the benefits of competition and struggle to meet their energy needs affordably.

Mercury agrees more must be done to assist the most vulnerable consumers.

The solutions for the specific households that are vulnerable (not just on electricity) can only be achieved by government, regulators and the industry working together on targeted measures that make a real difference for vulnerable consumers.

We agree with the findings of the recent Australian electricity pricing review that increased funding of energy literacy advice for budgeting agencies would be of value to ensure all consumers can get access to the benefits of competition. The Electricity Authority is the most credible entity to support this.

Price capping as proposed in Australia and the UK is not commensurate with the problem definition in New Zealand.

We must avoid highly interventionist approaches which will undermine New Zealand’s world leading performance and incentives for the efficient operation of, and ongoing investment in, the retail and wholesale markets.

The three most significant factors identified by the EPR6 First Report affecting consumer electricity prices include the number of people in a household, level of insulation and network costs.

None of these relate to or are controlled by the competitive elements of the electricity market.

The government is already doing an excellent job in funding and addressing household insulation through targeted subsidies based on expert advice.
 

However, the current Winter Energy Payment is not targeted to the most vulnerable.

Targeting concessions to improve affordability was a key finding the ACCC review of the electricity sector in Australia.

The current government funding for the Winter Energy Payment (WEP) is $347m p.a. If this were targeted to the 100,000 households identified by the EPR First Report as vulnerable, this would completely fund the annual electricity bills for those consumers as well as fund some more efficient appliances (heat pumps, LED lighting, insulation).

Instead, many people such as some superannuitants, receive the WEP and do not need it.

Further, targeted WEPs should be paid directly to the energy accounts of vulnerable consumers in order to ensure that the WEP is used for the purpose for which it is provided, to ensure vulnerable consumers are able to heat their homes in winter. Retailers can assist here.


Mercury urges the EPR panel to objectively analyse further the ability of pre-pay products to address the issues raised in the paper and significantly reduce the overall costs vulnerable consumers face.
 

Mercury’s GLOBUG pre- pay product for example:

  • Offers complete flexibility for customers to pay small amounts when they want rather than get a large monthly bill
     
  • Is inclusive of Prompt Payment Discounts (PPDs) and in fact is priced at ~2% below Mercury post-pay headline prices, including a fully achieved 10% PPD, essentially building the discount into base pricing
     
  • Does not charge any fees for disconnection and reconnection
     
  • Has cost-reflective top-up fees that are less than those for post-paid products
     
  • Allows customers to repay any debt without incurring interest or fees and avoid negative impacts on their credit rating


GLOBUG customers typically benefit by around $400 per annum7 by retaining value they had previously lost to repeated missed post-pay PPDs, physical disconnection / reconnection visit costs and debt management fees.

As a result, for the same total cost, these customers can purchase approximately 1,400kWh of additional energy (enough to run a 2kW heater for 7 hours a day on every day of winter).

Importantly, pre-pay customers do not miss out on PPDs which the EPR First Report raised as a potential issue for vulnerable consumers.

While pre-pay fees for balance top-ups have been mentioned, these apply also for over the counter transactions for consumers on post-paid products (and are lower for GLOBUG).

Retaining PPDs offsets the impacts of top-up fees but the EPR analysis to date has not assessed the value to pre-pay customers from avoiding disconnection and reconnection fees which is likely to be a substantial and real benefit for customers who move to pre-pay. 8


There is scope to significantly increase pre-pay as a valuable payment option given the material cost savings particularly for the most vulnerable consumers.

In the UK, for example, 16% of customers are on pre-pay compared to 1.3% of the market currently in New Zealand.
 

Pre-pay is not an option available to vulnerable consumers in Australia due to highly restrictive hardship regulation and a lack of smart metering infrastructure.

This has reduced retail innovation and driven up costs of hardship programmes which have become concentrated to the larger retailers and had a significant impact on retail costs to serve, ironically exacerbating the affordability problem.


PPDs should not be banned but should be cost-reflective.

Banning them outright would lead to retailers having to charge late payment fees and increasing credit checking activity, rejecting those customers (likely vulnerable) who are a higher risk of non-payment.

This would have the effect of restricting competition being available to all and mean that the most vulnerable would the definitely miss out on the benefits of competition.


This is consistent with comments from Meridian CEO Neal Barclay who, having removed PPDs, stated he expected Meridian to be "a bit firmer with new customers coming in"9.

Without incentives for prompt payment, vulnerable consumers will be in more risk of mounting unsustainable debt and increase their exposure to predatory lenders. It is quite possible that Meridian’s position will do more harm than good for the genuinely vulnerable.


However, we agree there is evidence that PPDs are not always cost-reflective. A similar issue was identified in the recent Australian review.

Importantly, such discounting was not banned in Australia but the recommendation was to ensure they were set only at the reasonable savings that a retailer expects it will make if a consumer satisfies the conditions attached to the discount.
 

Mercury supports PPDs being cost-reflective.

Many vulnerable consumers face significant challenges in terms of managing daily expenses.

It is not uncommon for such consumers to be living in a simple cash economy where they may not have a functioning bank account let alone access to a credit card.


There is evidence that vulnerable consumers struggle to get to access to offers from all retailers who are excluding them through the payment options they accept.

Flick, for example, requires either a credit card or bank account details for weekly automatic deductions which can fluctuate.
 

This is not a feasible arrangement for many vulnerable consumers.

Flick is effectively shutting truly vulnerable customers out of its offering and cherry- picking more affluent parts of the market.


Energy retailers should not be able to refuse supply to a customer.

Mercury does not support the concept of a “retailer of last resort” for supply. All retailers should be responsible for ensuring consumers are provided access and are directed to the most appropriate product or service for their needs.

Increased competition is leading to a double-edged sword in that retailers, particularly new entrants, in a bid to increase profitability, are screening out vulnerable consumers through restrictive credit checking and limited payment options practices.


All retailers should be required to make an offer to supply electricity to any customer who requests it.

This could take the form of a standardised offering or a pre-pay offer. If a retailer is unable to offer pre-pay then they should manage that customer’s application to another retailer that can.

 

Toward better network solutions

Mercury agrees with the assessment in the EPR First Report that driving greater efficiency in our distribution and transmission networks will be essential to ensure costs for consumers are kept as low as possible in the future.


There is considerable industry consensus that the Low Fixed Charge Tariff (LFCT) regulations should be removed.

Mercury supports a phased transition over a five-year period to ensure this is manageable for consumers.

The LFCT does not need replacing so long as distribution pricing reform is progressed and there is better targeting of the Winter Energy Payment to ensure vulnerable consumers are protected.


The excessive variabilisation of lines charges needs to be addressed to deal with higher bills in winter.

Consumers favour simplicity over complexity and the evidence suggests a significant proportion of the benefits from cost-reflective pricing come from simple pricing structures.

We support progressively increasing fixed distribution charges (in line with LFCT phase out) and introducing limited and most likely static peak signalling to encourage efficient consumer behaviour.


A default cost-reflective structure should be introduced.

This will deal with the regressive issue of current network charges and send efficient signals for solar investment and electric vehicle charging which will also avoid the need for unnecessary and damaging network control of such technologies.


The Commerce Commission should investigate further any network pricing inefficiencies affecting residential consumers.

If reallocation is justified, it should be phased in over time. To address vulnerability, network areas with the highest deprivation scores should be targeted first.


Price quality regulation should be introduced across all networks and greater cost sharing among distributors should be encouraged.

The Commerce Commission should review the feasibility and benefits of extending regulation to community trust-owned networks.

As the EPR analysis indicates, 50% of our networks could be considered sub-scale and face challenges in terms of managing costs and delivering innovation.

The review should also consider impacts of the Optimised Deprival Value methodology as a basis for determining fair and reasonable charges in the electricity sector.


Restrictions should be reintroduced on distributor retailing.

With world leading retail competition now evident in New Zealand, the concerns that led to the removal of the restrictions on distributors in the past no longer apply.

This would also greatly assist in resolving the current tensions between retailers and distributors regarding the efficient sharing of consumption data.

Such data has significant commercial value in competitive retail markets and retailers currently have little assurance that distribution companies are using such data only for network planning purposes.

This stifles competition and innovation at a time when that should be receiving strong investment.


Mercury and the wider competitive retail sector has also consistently advocated for effective ring fencing of distributor investments in new technologies to ensure a level playing field for investment.

We continue to support this position or measures that would materially achieve the same intent such as redefining the lines service to exclude the home.


The Transmission Pricing Methodology needs to be resolved as it is creating significant uncertainty.

Mercury supports a prospective application of any beneficiary pays approach to avoid significant impacts on consumers, particularly for areas of the country with a higher proportion of vulnerable consumers.

 

Towards more efficient wholesale arrangements

Mercury welcomes the recognition in the EPR First Report that the wholesale market arrangements are highly efficient and that there is no evidence to suggest generation costs are excessive.

We agree with the EPR panel that efficient hedge market arrangements are important.

However, even the most liquid markets in the world experience material reductions in liquidity during times of significant stress as was demonstrated in global financial markets in 2008.

Market participants should be hedging risks far in advance.

It is unreasonable to expect that during times of crisis sufficient liquidity will be available, in the same way it would be unreasonable to assume an insurance provider would offer someone insurance when their house is on fire.

The Electricity Authority is currently working proactively with market makers to implement an effective transition from the current voluntary arrangements to commercial terms which should address the issues identified in the EPR First Report.

This should include options to expand market making requirements for all generators and retailers in proportion to their generation and load and consider multiple market making settings for managing such requirements in stress situations, as opposed to simply on or off.

 

Conclusion

In conclusion, Mercury strongly encourages the EPR panel to give more prominence in its next paper to areas that it considers are working well for consumers and ensure a balanced view of the facts, particularly around the factors that impact on affordability.

This includes not using 1990 as the starting point for the pricing analysis, as this provides a misleading picture of the performance of New Zealand’s world leading and sustainable electricity market.

We look forward to working with the panel to focus on improving outcomes for the most vulnerable consumers.



Footnotes

1 For example, the value of lost load used for cost benefit analyses by the Electricity Authority is $10,000/MWh which is more than 100x the typical electricity wholesale price
2 International Energy Agency Review of New Zealand (2017) https://www.iea.org/countries/membercountries/newzealand/
3 World Energy Trilemma index 2018 https://www.worldenergy.org/
4 New Zealand Treasury (1984) Report to the Minister of Finance - Review of Electricity Planning and Electricity Generation Costs
5 Having large flexible load which can be reduced for circa 1-3 months is another feasible possibility but not likely reliably viable. Sectors could include hydrogen or ammonia exports.
6 See Figure 12 EPR First Report
7 Based on Mercury analysis of 300 customers on post-pay products. Analysis was provided to the EPR Chair and secretariat on 20 July 2018.
8 Disconnection and reconnection fees range from around $30 to $150
9 https://www.nzherald.co.nz/business/news/article.cfm?c_id=3&objectid=12125424


Download report here.