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Energy price war may spark big switch back

Source: www.timesonline.co.uk

So far 300,000 households have made “the big switch”, but now the light could be about to go out on the marketing campaign. Bord Gais, the second-largest electricity supplier, is suggesting it might leave the domestic market because regulators have decided to allow ESB to set its own prices.

ESB’s new pricing freedom, which will be confirmed this week by the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER), clears the way for a new energy price war from October, as the state electricity company seeks to win back some of the households lost to Bord Gais and at least another 150,000 customers who moved to Airtricity in the past year.

Most were lured by Bord Gais’s “big switch” promotion, fronted by Lucy Kennedy, a television presenter, which offered discounts of up to 14% on ESB prices.

ESB’s fees were frozen by regulators to encourage competition to break its monopoly on domestic electricity supplies. Even though ESB has lost a quarter of its household customers, Bord Gais has told the CER that it is too early to end this measure. After little more than a year in the electricity market, Bord Gais said it would face financial losses in a price war with the ESB — and that would prompt it to consider its future as a domestic electricity supplier.

If John Mullins, the chief executive of Bord Gais, was to decide to pull out, it would deal a blow to the government’s hopes for a competitive household energy market.

ESB declined to comment on its future pricing plans. “We look forward to deregulation and to competing on the same basis as other energy companies,” it said.

Modest discounts could be enough to lure former customers back to ESB, because many are finding increases in their electricity bills as introductory offers run out at Bord Gais and Airtricity.

Airtricity customers have been affected the most. They were offered savings of at least 5% on ESB prices, with extra discounts for online billing, paying by direct debit and spreading their bills in equal instalments over the year — giving a maximum 13% reduction. But the discounts expired on March 31 for those who switched to Airtricity before October 1 last year — little more than six months for some households.

The move narrows the price gap with ESB to 6% for those who receive their bills online and 5% for other Airtricity customers. “We offer rolling tariffs, with discounts expiring on certain dates rather than after a set period of time,” said Airtricity. “Our 6% discount on ESB prices is better than what Bord Gais offers its customers after a year.”

The bills of thousands of Bord Gais electricity customers will also increase in the coming weeks. It entered the market in March last year offering a minimum saving of 10% on ESB prices, with extra discounts for existing gas customers and those paying by direct debit — a maximum saving of 14%. The discount drops to a maximum 5% in years two and three.

Bord Gais’s high profile switchover campaign was criticised by the advertising watchdog last year for failing to clarify that its discounted price was for one year only. It was also censured for telling customers there was “10%-14% off electricity costs” when in fact the discount applied to the unit cost of electricity and not the overall bill, which included standing charges.

Three complaints were upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland. Bord Gais argued it did not consider it necessary to include all the relevant terms and conditions that applied to the 10% discount in the advert because they were lengthy and could not easily be communicated.

It said customers would not make the switch based on the advertisement alone, and that during each application process customers would be alerted to the terms and conditions that apply to the offer.

By last September, 200,000 had switched to Bord Gais, about 1,000 a day. In addition to the marketing campaign, house-to-house calls were used to encourage people to transfer from ESB.

By February, the figure had risen to 300,000 and the semi-state set a target of 1m gas and electricity customers by 2012. It currently has 600,000 gas customers. It said the rate of switches had slowed slightly but remained at 2,500 per week. Airtricity is aiming to have 500,000 customers by 2013.






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