Way back in 2000, when Europe’s continental energy markets were deregulated, I remember how many business clients were thrilled by the prospect of negotiating their energy contracts. After decades of nerve-wrecking non-talks with arrogant monopoly utilities, they would finally get the chance to unleash the power of their contract negotiation skills on the important energy budget. A decade and a half later, we see more and more clients questioning whether negotiating energy contracts makes sense and if it’s not better to ‘just expand your running contract’. Reasons for that disillusion? First of all, in mature energy markets the part of the energy bill that you are negotiating, what we call the retail add-on, is just a tiny part of the overall energy bill. And as it is small, the amount of “savings” you can make by negotiating it is small as well. Moreover, energy companies often run highly standardized contracting procedures, making the room for improvements small. Nevertheless, with every contract negotiation that we as E&C do, we see that improvements can be made. And even if they look like small steps (dots and commas), they often lead to important improvements in the energy procurement practice.
Natural gas and electricity have become highly commoditized products. A product becomes a commodity when standard quality and service characteristics have been defined or developed for it, meaning that it can be bought with “price” as the primary focus. As far as energy is concerned, the quality is standardized. Whether you buy from supplier A, B or C, the natural gas or electricity as a physical product will not be different. Regarding the service, we have to remark that most of the traditional service aspects of a delivery of a product have also been standardized as far as energy is concerned. I’m talking here about aspects such as timing of the delivery, security of supply, responsiveness of the supplier in case of a supply interruption, etc. In the case of electricity and natural gas, it’s not the supplier but the grid operator that is responsible for the delivery at the gate of the client. And this is a regulated company delivering a legally regulated, standardized, one-size fits all service.
The standardization of quality and service level is an important step in the development of a wholesale commodity market. Wholesale markets, whether they are exchange traded or OTC, always face the liquidity dilemma. For them to become successful, they need to have sufficient volume traded. If there is a large diversity of products traded, the total volume traded (or the amount of money flowing into that market) will have to be spread out over all these different products, reducing the liquidity per product. With insufficient liquidity, bid-ask spreads will run up, price changes become erratic and it becomes difficult to find counterparties. As far as energy is concerned, it has proven to be possible to sufficiently commoditize energy products for successful wholesale markets, even exchange-traded, to develop. We have first seen this in the oil markets and in the US Henry Hub gas market, the UK’s NBP and Scandinavia’s Nordpool, and recently also in continental Europe’s natural gas and electricity markets with TTF and EEX being the best-of-class examples, but for example Poland’s Polpx recently developing very rapidly as well.
When products become commoditized, a phenomenon called ‘margin erosion’ occurs. The suppliers become retailers in the sense that they buy the product in the wholesale market and then sell it on to end consumers. The basic price reference becomes the wholesale price, which is the same for every supplier – retailer. They have to make their living from the add-on that they charge on top of that wholesale price. As suppliers can no longer distinguish themselves with better quality or service levels, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to charge a price premium for that add-on cost compared to other suppliers. That’s why we observe that as markets mature, the price differences between the suppliers become marginal. This is clear in a very transparent manner in the TTF-based gas markets, where suppliers offer energy at a very simple TTF + add-on in euro per MWh price formula. For consumers above 20.000 MWh per year, we often see at the end of a negotiation that there are three – four suppliers that are offering at TTF + 0,2 or 0,3 with differences of less than 5 eurocent per MWh among them. If you consider that the total value of the natural gas (commodity + other costs) is around 18 euro per MWh, you can clearly see how marginal a phenomenon retail price distinction has become.
Having observed this commoditization of the product, you could easily conclude that the energy supply business is commoditized as well. Hence, comparing energy supply offers is a simple matter of putting prices next to each other. “Negotiation” is even a hyperbole when we speak about commodities, as it’s just a matter of picking the best price, which in the case of many gas markets in Europe has become childishly simple. However, even if their product has become commoditized, the energy supply business hasn’t, on the contrary. As markets mature, energy suppliers have become suppliers of a set of services regarding the delivery of energy commodities that we can subdivide in the following categories:
- Profiling services. In the wholesale markets, energy can only be bought on a forward basis in rudimentary blocks. And the physical delivery of the electricity and natural gas goes through a complicated process of balancing. A supplier will buy the blocks for you and perform the complicated day-ahead, intraday and end-of-day financial settlement operations to make sure that you get delivered exactly what you consume. This profiling service constitutes the main economic rationale for buying energy through a supplier – retailer and not directly in the wholesale market. Due to his portfolio effect (he can go through the balancing mechanism on a portfolio-wide basis), the supplier can deliver the profiling at a very reasonable cost.
- Volume services. The blocks that you can secure on a forward basis in the wholesale markets come with no or very limited volume flexibility. Energy suppliers can increase the amount of volume flexibility offered to an end-client by using their portfolio effect again.
- Price hedging services. As the links between the end-consumer and the wholesale market, the energy suppliers have developed services to perform price hedges. Again, because of their portfolio effects, they can deliver these at a price and with a level of flexibility that is often unachievable for the individual client.
- Payment services. Suppliers offer payment terms which are longer than the terms they themselves have to pay to the counterparties in the wholesale markets or the grid companies and authorities in case they offer a single utility bill service. This means that they actually become a credit provider. The amount of credit that they provide and the conditions at which it comes can be more or less strict.
- Other services. Suppliers can develop other services in terms of invoicing services, advanced meter reading services, cost monitoring services, energy efficiency services, etc.
Remarkably enough, having a good level of the services described above doesn’t necessarily come at a price premium. It depends mostly on the operational and commercial practices that the different companies have developed. However, the differences in the level of these services makes contract negotiation important. And makes it necessary for clients to have the necessary experience to make a good assessment of the different contractual possibilities. Having a good insight into how suppliers work, e.g. when they perform a price hedge, can be very helpful in getting a better result negotiated. As a consultant, I’m obviously biased, but believing that the suppliers themselves will help you getting the necessary insights into their complicated worlds is somewhat naïve. Not just because of their ill will, but also because the account managers that you talk to often don’t have those insights themselves. As markets mature, we see that energy suppliers’ services in themselves become more standardized, as all the suppliers have to gradually adapt to the best-of-class service standard to stay competitive. However, even then a small difference in wording of e.g. a volume or a price fixing condition can make a very big difference in operational outcome, making it important to carefully check every offer received and negotiate conditions.
But not only such service aspects make it important for a client to have good contract negotiation. Even if the price differences are small, there is still one offer out there in the market that is the cheapest. It’s the responsibility of a professional procurement organization to go out and find that cheapest contract. This importance obviously grows as the consumption grows. 10 eurocents multiplied by 500.000 makes for more money to be made by contract negotiation than for a client consuming just 10.000 MWh. But then the price differences can be larger when the consumption is lower. So it is still worthwhile to go out in the market and negotiate the price conditions. With almost every RFQ we see that we can create value with contract negotiation, that the contract that the client ultimately signs is a better contract than what he would have signed without the negotiation, not just in the conditions but often also in price. The market has come to this stage of low retail add-ons and good service levels thanks to the negotiation efforts of many buyers and consultants. And it’s worthwhile to keep up the effort!