Benefit from lower energy prices
2010 could be the year of energy bill cuts as pressure mounts on suppliers to pass on lower wholesale costs to customers. The 'big six' suppliers have all taken heed and cut bills.
In February, British Gas cut gas bills by 7%. Just weeks later, Scottish and Southern Energy cut its gas bills by 4%, E.ON announced a 3.3% reduction to gas bills and npower decreased gas prices by 7%.
ScottishPower and EDF Energy have also cut gas bills by 8% and 4% respectively. However, concerns remain about what will happen to energy prices down the line.
When retail energy prices jumped across the board during 2008, energy suppliers pointed the finger of blame on the huge spike in wholesale costs.
But this situation has now been reversed. Ahead of the most recent cuts, Andrew Wright, senior partner for markets at Ofgem, told suppliers that the regulator would expect them to pass recent falls in wholesale energy costs on to consumers.
While cuts have been forthcoming, the size of these has come as a disappointment. Audrey Gallacher, energy expert at Consumer Focus, says the days of cut-throat price competition are a distant memory.
"All suppliers cut by almost identical margins within days of each other," she says. "There are no sprinters in this race, all we have are long distance trudgers desperate to stay in the safety of the pack."
But Graham Bartlett, managing director of E.ON's retail business, says: "The fall in current wholesale prices is only part of the pricing story as our customers are using gas bought over a number of years at much higher prices than today."
Are households really benefiting?
British Gas was the first major energy supplier to announce it was cutting gas bills this year – however, just a few weeks later it announced a 58% jump in its annual profits, thanks to the falling wholesale cost of gas and electricity.
But the energy giant isn't alone in seemingly raking in the profits. An investigation by Ofgem found that the net margin for a typical standard dual fuel customer rose by £30 during the three months to February 2010.
Mike O'Connor, chief executive of watchdog Consumer Focus, says: "At a time when householders are worried about their winter energy bills, they will no doubt wonder why margins have increased for the fifth quarter in a row, while wholesale costs continue to fall.
The answer seems to be depressingly simple – energy companies are pushing up their profits by cashing in on the cold spell."
Although Ofgem's figures don't take into account the latest price cuts, a quick look at energy price movements over the past two years shows the impact of rocketing wholesale energy costs in 2008 is still being felt by many households.
For example, British Gas only cut gas prices by 10% last year and 7% this year, compared with a 50% hike in 2008.
According to uSwitch.com, household energy bills are around £270 higher than two years ago.
The future of energy prices
While energy bills appear to be 'heading south', this is sadly only a short-term trend. A recent report by Ofgem warned that far-reaching energy market reforms are needed in order to ensure energy supplies are sustainable, and affordable, beyond the middle of this decade.
Without this investment, energy could become unaffordable. However, with an estimated £200 billion needed, it is likely some of the cost will filter through into domestic energy bills.
There are also fears that consumers may have to pick up the cost of smart meters, which every house must have within the next 10 years.
What you should do
According to energy experts, people on standard tariffs are probably better off switching regardless of pending price cuts.
"Online energy plans currently cost around £300 a year less than suppliers' standard plans, offering households a real opportunity to take their energy bills back to pre-2008 levels," says Thomas Lyon, energy expert at uSwitch.com.
As well as switching, there are a number of other things you can do to reduce your bill. For example, you're likely to be charged less if you opt for paperless bills and pay by direct debit.
However, one of the best ways to cut your bill is to simply use less energy. Making your home more energy efficient is also an option, although this can be costly.
The government does offer grants to households to help them meet the cost of energy efficient home improvements.
You can find out more about these, and the government's boiler scrappage scheme, through the Energy Saving Trust (energysavingtrust.org.uk or 0800 512 012).
Currently, energy suppliers are allowed up to 65 days to notify a customer following a decision to increase prices. If a customer is notified after the event, then suppliers must allow them to switch supplier and avoid any backdated increase.
However, the energy regulator Ofgem is now considering amending the statutory time limit. Under the proposed new rules, it may insist on energy suppliers notifying customers of price changes in advance or, alternatively, it may reduce the time limit from 65 days to 10.