Nigel Hawkins is the utilities analyst at Hardman and Co and a Utility Week ­correspondent Company strategy, Electricity retail, Energy retail, Gas retail, Smart metering, Strategy & management, Analysis, British Gas, Centrica, EDF, Innogy, Ovo Energy, SSE

The market share of the big six has fallen by 24 percentage points since 2014. The disruptors are here – and Ovo’s purchase of SSE will see the big six become the big five.

It is not often that City analysts and corporate financiers praise the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) – whose recommendations sometimes eliminate expected bonuses – for its far-reaching insight.

But, in its in-depth analysis of the UK electricity supply market in 2016, the CMA addressed the contentious issue of ­“detriment” – in essence, the extra amount paid by household consumers as a result of the market’s inherent defects.

Much to the undisguised fury of British Gas parent company Centrica and the other members of the big six, the CMA concluded that the “detriment” figure between 2012 and 2015 averaged £1.4 billion per year – a ­seriously chunky number.

In undertaking this provocative analysis, the CMA used key data from two new market entrants, First Utility and Ovo Energy. Both companies have become disrupters in a market which, for a generation, had been dominated by the big six integrated energy suppliers.

The UK supply market share of the big six has fallen from 97 per cent in 2014 to around 73 per cent currently. Disruption is clearly to the fore.

Fast-moving market

Nonetheless, most of the approximately 70 new entrants have really struggled in a fast-moving market that can suddenly be overtaken by events such as cold weather snaps.

Indeed, some 15 small energy ­suppliers have collapsed since January 2018. And many others are struggling financially.

Among the most well-known ­casualties was the previously quoted Flow Energy, whose apparent obsession with boilers and their technology overwhelmed its supply business – the latter was eventually folded into Co-Op Energy.

For the two leading market disrupters, major deals have been announced.

In the case of First Utility, it has been bought out by the mighty Shell, whose combined – A shares and B shares – market capitalisation currently exceeds £185 billion. In theory, given its towering financial strength, it could buy the whole of the UK electricity industry.

Subsequently, First Utility has been rebranded as Shell Energy.

For Ovo, its recent deal with SSE represents a “great leap forward” and will provide it with an energy supply customer base of approximately five million, more than three times its current number of customers.

The total cost of the deal, which replaces the failed SSE initiative to merge its household supply business with the then RWE-controlled Innogy, amounts to £500 million.

Once the deal is completed, £400 million of this amount will be paid over to SSE, while the outstanding £100 million is covered by a bond, due to be redeemed in 2029: various other financial reconciliations will also take place.

The interest rate on the latter is a formidable 13.25 per cent, almost identical to the ill-fated Sirius Minerals bond – to fund a massive potash scheme in Yorkshire – that was pulled in mid-September.

For SSE, after the embarrassing Innogy setback, the deal will be seen positively, although the sale price may seem relatively low.

However, SSE has been unequivocal in stating that its priorities are its renewable generation assets, whose underlying valuation will have risen in recent years, and its regulated networks businesses that effectively fund the dividend.

Avoiding a dividend cut – a la Centrica – remains key. As part of its announcement covering the Ovo deal, SSE reaffirmed its dividend targets, linked to the RPI, until 2022/23.

The deal will also reduce its burgeoning net debt of £9.4 billion at March 2019.

Challenges of integration

For Ovo, this deal is a veritable game-changer, although integrating such a comparative large increase in customer numbers will be challenging. Not to be under-­estimated either are the additional risks to its business model that the deal entails.

However, despite being barely profitable, Ovo’s valuation, as implied by the 20 per cent stake taken by Mitsubishi, indicates a figure of about £1 billion – a commendable effort for a start-up business founded as recently as 2009.

Assessing whether Ovo has overpaid is not easy, given the various adjustments to SSE Energy Services’ business such as the Northern Ireland customer base that is excluded and certain balancing items.

On an asset basis, SSE is selling the business at 34 per cent below book value – a pronounced discount. The equivalent exit price/earnings ratio exceeds 14, although Ovo’s past losses will surely come into play to reduce future tax bills.

Despite this sale and the loss of much of its customer-focusing element, SSE will remain a major force both in northern Scotland and in the south of England: it acquired the Maidenhead-based Southern Electric more than 20 years ago.

After all, SSE still owns a portfolio of generation assets amounting to 10.5GW of capacity, 3.8GW of which produces renewable energy, along with various valuable energy networks.

It has also been confirmed that the European Union has approved the planned Eon acquisition of Innogy, in which its German rival, RWE, has been the dominant shareholder.

Innogy’s origins date back to the days of National Power, hewn out of the UK’s nationalised Central Electricity Generating Board (CEGB), and floated in 1991.

Following EU approval, which requires some minor disposals, notably in the Czech Republic and Hungary, Eon will begin the complex integration process: its own renewable generation assets and those of Innogy will be transferred to RWE.

These transactions will have a marked impact upon the operations of what is now – following RWE’s effective exit from Innogy (it is set to maintain a sub 10 per cent minority stake) – the big five.

Oligopoly dominance eroded

Unquestionably, the dominance of this oligopoly has been eroded, not just in terms of the industry’s structure, but also because of specific challenges that each of its members currently face.

In July, Centrica hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The 2019 interim results were disappointing – the introduction of price controls was a key negative factor.

Furthermore, the dividend was cut by a whopping 58 per cent.

Confirmation that chief executive Iain Conn will step down next year was therefore hardly a surprise.

After all, over the past five years, Centrica’s shares have plummeted and have given up three-quarters of their former value.

For EDF, a litany of problems persists. In reality, EDF is a business – effectively owned by the French government – that faces a raft of problems. The plunging share price, down by almost 90 per cent since 2007, tells its own sorry story.

At the operational level, its vast French nuclear power fleet needs major refurbishment, while costs at both the Olkiluoto plant in Finland and at Flamanville – EDF’s shop-window third-generation plant in France – are barely under control. The latest ­Flamanville cost estimate is now £10 billion.

Within the UK, it is the £20 billion 3.26GW Hinkley Point C plant that is paramount.

Its £92.50 per MWh inflation-proof contract for difference (CfD) strike price compares dreadfully with the approximately £40 per MWh equivalent for offshore wind projects on the Dogger Bank, 60 miles out to sea, that has just been announced.

Of the original big six, there is no doubt that the Spain-based Iberdrola has seriously outperformed its struggling peers – despite disappointing returns from its ScottishPower subsidiary.

Its market valuation – £53 billion compared with Centrica’s meagre £4.3 billion – is driven by its laser-like focus on renewable generation, which started decades ago.

Of the various renewable technologies, it was unequivocal in its view – which has been fully vindicated – that wind and, ultimately, solar would prevail and that others, including biomass, new hydro, tidal, wave, geothermal and fuel cells, would all struggle.

Below the now big five level, only Shell looks likely to be a new entrant – if it chooses to do so.

Its focus, though, is not on large generation projects, something that was widely expected at privatisation to be undertaken by Shell and other major UK players, such as BP and three now disbanded businesses, Hanson, ICI and GEC: this investment did not materialise.

Shell’s focus, and that of BP, is on the rapidly developing electric vehicle (EV) charging market, at the head of which both oil majors are seeking to position themselves.

To date, Shell has bought both ­NewMotion and the US-based Greenlots, while BP has acquired Chargemaster, the UK’s largest EV charging business.

And, if either decided to bid for Centrica – and its valuable customer base – this would inevitably shake up the remaining big five even further.

As for Ovo, it does not own material ­generation assets; to that extent, it is not an integrated energy business – but this does not mean that it cannot be a major player in the supply market.

Credible business models

While many start-up energy supply companies have fallen by the wayside, there are some with credible business models that are beginning to gain traction.

Both Utility Warehouse and Co-Op Energy are establishing themselves.

There are similarities in that Utility Warehouse acquired much of its customer base from RWE Npower, while Co-Op Energy is similarly indebted to the ­Midcounties Co-operative: it has made subsequent acquisitions.

And Octopus Energy, the offshoot of a successful asset management business, has just signed an innovative green energy deal with the Greater London Authority (GLA).

So, as the 20-year UK energy supply ­oligopoly comes under renewed pressure, change in the sector is undoubtedly afoot – as the CMA’s door-stopping, 1,400-plus page final report foresaw.

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