An open energy market should mean a better deal for customers but the reality is different in some countries, notably France. There are simply not enough providers to give the consumer much variation in choice.
In France, many users would rather cling to the protection they feel they enjoy under regulated pricing systems. They are cushioned from fluctuations outside their country, such as volatile oil costs. The French are in a stable position because their extensive nuclear network reduces their exposure to fossil fuel pressures.
Even consumer defence militant Daniel Faugeron with the association ATTAC is non-committal about the best way to go:
“Say I’m paying the going rate… The market price is subject to the ups and downs of the electricity bourse, energy etcetera. I mean, the electricity provider can decide for reason ‘x’ to raise his price.”
Citizens are wary of changing over, if, once they’ve gone with a private operator at a market price, they are prohibited from returning to a regulated system, as is the case in France.
Spanish MEP Alejandro Quadras says the broader European population will not benefit from any piecemeal opening up:
“If we want an integrated European energy market with full liberalisation and free competition, all the member states must comply with the common rules.”
Dominique Forest at the European consumers association BEUC says the changes under way may also see prices go up:
“The liberalisation now is effectively a half measure, without transparent information that permits comparison, without consumers having the choice of changing suppliers unless they pay a steep penalty, or where competition can develop between operators. A market structure is far more competitive where operators can offer good deals to their customers.”
Most of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power. A tiny portion comes from renewables. In a real free market scenario, with many providers, operators would feel freer to increase their prices as much as they wished to optimise profits. Yet the French do not seem wholly convinced they want to go down that road.