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Energy network companies need to raise their game

by Jamie Stewart, Energy policy officer at Citizens Advice Scotland

(This column first appeared in the Sunday Herald on 12 August 2018).

As you may have noticed, energy bills seem to be going only one way recently. Every other week it seems we hear of another energy supplier hiking their prices amid ever-tightening household budgets. So people in Scotland are probably more aware than ever of the price we pay for our energy. 

What you might not be aware of is that around 25% of your energy bill goes towards energy network companies. These are not the actual suppliers of gas and electricity but the people who maintain and upgrade the pipes and wires that deliver it to us. 

In Scotland gas is delivered to the 83% of properties that are connected to the mains gas grid by SGN. Electricity, which is delivered to almost every household in Scotland, is in the hands of Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN) in the north of Scotland and Scottish Power Energy Networks (SPEN) in the south. While you might not have heard of these companies, they are working away every day to make sure that our homes and businesses receive the reliable energy supplies that we’ve all come to expect. 

But while organisations like Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS) might encourage you to switch energy supplier to find a better deal, you have no choice who your energy network company is. They are all regulated monopolies. This means that the way they operate - and importantly what they charge consumers - is controlled by the energy regulator, Ofgem.

25% is a big chunk of your energy bill though, so this puts a lot of responsibility on the regulator. And as most consumers will have little direct dealing with these network companies - unless there is a power-cut or gas-outage in your area - it is important that someone as well as Ofgem is looking out for bill payers and making sure costs are kept as low as possible. As the leading consumer advocacy group in Scotland this is a role that CAS fulfills. 

Last week we published a report ‘Pylons, Pipes and People’ which looks at how energy network companies in Scotland currently support households and how their role might change as we move to an energy system that has more renewables, more electric vehicles and smarter houses. We found that while the network companies are doing more and more to support households when there is a power-cut or gas-outage, the Scottish electricity network companies could be doing more to provide support to vulnerable households outside of these ’crisis’ events. We are therefore calling for these companies to expand the reach and ambition of their consumer programmes, for example those which give support to fuel poor households.

On a different note, I recently travelled to the Western Isles on holiday and noticed that every fifth vehicle I passed seemed to be an energy network van or truck. So I urge you to look out for their vehicles when you are travelling around and remember that they are delivering a service that you and everybody else in Scotland is paying for. We at CAS will keep working to ensure that you are paying them a fair price for a decent service, just as we do with the energy suppliers.

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