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Why don't utilities talk face to face with their customers? Energy companies have been talking about changing their offering to customers - becoming an energy service company, talking about ­managing usage, giving them the green message - but much of the money spent to get that message across has gone on improving other companies' relationships with utility customers.
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At the start of the year, Which? published the results of its energy company satisfaction survey. Not only was this a great accolade for Good ­Energy, which topped the league table with a score of 84 per cent, but it was also a big win for the smaller suppliers in general, which took the top five places.
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One of the frustrations for customers of regulated industries is that on the rare occasion the regulator does impose a penalty, it disappears into the Treasury with no benefit to customers. Perhaps that's a frustration for regulators, too: they are taking a more inventive approach.
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It's fair to say that the UK's approach to utility deregulation and restructuring has been groundbreaking.
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The charges levied by distribution and transmission companies for use of their networks are so volatile and unpredictable that they create major unhedgeable risks for suppliers. From 2010 to 2011, domestic electricity distribution charges changed between -3 per cent and 24 per cent, based on average consumption figures across the 14 distribution network operator (DNO) regions. The latest indicative tariffs suggest that households will see similar changes for the coming year.
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Consumers in Northern Ireland suffer from some of the highest costs of ­energy in Europe. This, combined with the lowest average wage of all the regions in the UK, has resulted in a fuel poverty level three times higher than that in Great Britain.
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Norwegian utility Statkraft's trading update for the last quarter of 2011 makes interesting reading.
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A timely reminder about how much strain our energy networks can be put under was provided by David Clarke, Energy Technologies Institute chief executive, when he gave the Bridge Lecture last week. He noted (see news story, page 4) that domestic gas usage can increase sixfold between summer and winter.
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The UK government now seems to have accepted that new unabated gas-fired power stations will be required when dirtier plant is closed after 2015. New combined cycle gas turbines (CCGTs) have lower emissions than coal, yet retain the flexibility required to accommodate variable renewables.
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The Electricity Market Reform project reveals a profound lack of confidence in the ability of market mechanisms to attract sufficient investment to deliver security of supply from a low-carbon generation mix. Undoubtedly the electricity market would benefit from reform, but not from dismantlement. The current process looks set to stifle investment and precipitate the very crisis the government is seeking to avoid.
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Convincing investors to pay for expensive, risky projects is a tricky business. Initially the set-up is simple: offer a guaranteed return for a guaranteed period. If it's high enough, there will be investment out there, no matter how big the project - even building thousands of wind turbines miles offshore.
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Here at S&C we're celebrating our 100th anniversary. Looking back over the past century, there are of course massive differences between technology and innovation then and what we have today. It is interesting to note not only how much various sectors have evolved, but also the way in which they have done so.
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