Retail Therapy

July 1, 2012 will probably be mostly remembered at the date Australia introduced a price on carbon. But another event took place which may be more significant in terms of how households and small businesses consume their electricity:  the commencement of the National Energy Customer Framework (NECF).  The NECF gives the Australian Energy Regulator (AER) the responsibility for (among other things) regulating retail electricity prices.  Electricity retail prices continue to rise driven mostly by increasing capital expenditure costs for networks. Electricity businesses, regulators and governments are increasingly turning their attention to Time of Use (TOU) pricing to help mitigate peak network demand and therefore reduce capital expenditure.

Change will be gradual to start with however. A cynical observer may suggest that the NECF is no more than a website at present, but I believe that change is inevitable and it will be significant. Five states and the ACT have agreed to a phased introduction of the NECF following on from a 2006 COAG agreement, and the transition will be fraught with all of the complexities of introducing cross jurisdictional regulatory reform.

There are basically two mechanisms that drive the cost of electricity to produce and deliver. One is the weather (we use more in hot and cold weather) and the other is the cost of maintaining and upgrading the network that delivers the electricity. For the large retailers, the way to deal with the weather is to invest in both generation and retail because one is a hedge for the other. These are known as “gentailers”.

The network cost has traditionally been passed through as a regulated network tariff component of the retail price. The problem with this is that often the network price structure does not reflect actual network costs which are driven by infrequent peak use, particularly for residential customers. Those who use a greater proportion of electricity during peak times add to the cost of maintaining capacity in the network to cope with the peak. But for residential and other small consumers they all pay the same rate. In effect, “peaky” consumers are subsidised by “non-peaky” customers.

It is not yet really clear how a price signal will be built into the retail tariff but one policy option is for distributors to pass costs to reflect an individual consumer’s load profile. The implications for government policy are interesting but I’ll save for another post. In this post, I’ll explore what the implications are from the retailer’s perspective in contestable markets.

I believe that this is potentially quite a serious threat to the business model for retailers for a number of reasons that I’ll get into shortly, but at the heart of the matter is data: lots of it, and what to do with it. Much of that data is flowing from smart meters in Victoria and NSW and will start to flow from meters in other states. A TOU pricing strategy not only requires data from smart meters but also many other sources as well.

Let’s have a quick recap on TOU. I have taken the following graph from a report we have prepared for the Victorian Department of Primary Industries which can be found here.

The idea of TOU is to define a peak time period where the daily usage peaks and charge more for electricity in this time period. A two part TOU will define other times as off peak and charge a much lower tariff. There may also be shoulder periods either side of the peak where a medium tariff is charged.

How each of these periods is defined and the tariff levels set will determine whether the system as a whole will collect the same revenue as when everyone is on a flat tariff.  This principle is called revenue neutrality. That is, the part of the electricity system that supplies households and small businesses will collect the same revenue under the new TOU tariffs as under the old flat tariff.

But this should by no means give comfort to retailers that they each will achieve revenue neutrality.

For example, we can see from the above graphs that even if revenue neutrality is achieved for all residential and SME customers combined, residential customers may be better off and SME worse or vice versa but everything still totals to no change in revenue. If a retailer has a large share of customers in a “better off” category then that will translate to a fall in revenue if the retailer passes on the network tariff with their existing margin. In fact we find that residential bills for example may be reduced by up to five per cent, depending on the design of the network tariff.

Of course this is just one segmentation of TOU, there could be many, many more sub-segments all with different “better off” or ”worse off” outcomes.

Revenue neutrality can be affected by price elasticity (consumers reduce their peak consumption) or substitution (they move their peak usage to shoulder or off-peak and thus reducing their overall electricity bill). This means that retailers not only have to understand what the impact would be under a current state of electricity usage but also how the tariff itself will affect consumer behaviour.

Data is at the very centre of competitive advantage as this disruptive event unfolds in the retail electricity market. Indeed the threat may not just be disruptive: for some retailers this may be an existential threat, especially as we see data-centric organisations entering the market such as telcos and ISPs. So far the no large telcos have entered the market in Australia (as far as I know: please correct me on this if this has changed) but surely the elephants must be loitering outside the room if not already in it.

I think what is clear for incumbent electricity retailers is “do nothing” is not an option. There must be a clear strategy around data and pricing including technology, talent and process. Furthermore, the centrepiece must be time of use pricing excellence built on a deep capability with data flowing from new technology meters and networks.

So what exactly are the key issues? The following list is by no means exhaustive but certainly gives some idea of the extent of data and the quantum of skills required to handle such complex analysis and interpretation.

Opt In or Opt Out?

I believe that TOU tariffs for small consumers are inevitable, but how will it roll out and how fast will the rollout be? The key policy decision will be whether to allow customers to opt in to TOU tariffs or opt out of a scheme which will otherwise be rolled out by default (a third option is to mandate to all, but this is likely to be politically unpalatable). I think pressure on governments to act on electricity network costs means that the “opt in” option, if it is adopted by the AER, will by definition be a transitional process. But the imperative is to act quickly because there is a lag between reducing peak demand and the flow through to capital expenditure savings (this is another whole issue which I will discuss in a future post). This lag means that if take up of TOU is too slow then the effect to the bottom line will be lost in the general noise of electricity consumption cycles: a case of a discount delayed is a discount denied. Retailers will have the right to argue for a phased introduction but there will be pressure on governments and the AER to balance this against the public good.

Non-cyclical change in demand

In recent years we have seen a change in the way electricity is consumed. I won’t go into the details here because I have blogged on this before. Suffice to say that it is one thing to understand from the data how a price may play out in the current market state but it’s altogether another thing to forecast how this will affect earnings. This requires a good idea of where consumption is heading and in turn this is affected a by a range of recent disruptors including Solar PV, changes in housing energy efficiency and changes in household appliance profiles. Any pricing scenario must also include a consumption forecast scenario. It would also be wise to have way to monitor forecasts carefully for other black swans waiting to sweep in.

A whole of market view

The task of maintaining or increasing earnings from TOU pricing will be a zero sum game. That is, if one retailer gets an “unfair share” of the “worse off” segments, then another retailer will get more of the “better off” segments and it is likely that this will be a one-off re-adjustment of the market. There is a need for a sophisticated understanding of customer lifetime value and this will be underpinned by also having a good understanding of market share by profitability. The problem is that smart meters (and the subsequent data for modelling TOU) will roll out in stages (Victoria is ahead of the other states, but I think the rollout will be inevitable across the National Electricity Market). The true competitive advantage for a retailer comes from estimating the demand profiles of customers still on accumulation meters and those smart meter consumers who are with competitors. There are a range of data mining techniques to build a whole-of-market view but equally important is a sound go-to-market strategy built to take advantage of these insights.

There will be winners and losers in the transition to TOU. For consumers, it could be argued that the “losers” are currently “winners” because the cost of their electricity supply is being subsidised by less “peaky” customers. There will also be winners and losers among energy retailers. Some of the winners may not even be in the market yet. The question is who will the losers be?

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