Energy Firms making bigger AND smaller profits

We have heard a lot recently about how rising electricity and gas prices are a result of the large profits of the energy companies. Ed Milliband went on the attack at the Labour Party Conference, proposing a price freeze if Labour gets into power. With energy prices going up 10% a year I wandered how large these profits must be. The BBC today gives some clues.

Regulator Ofgem says the big six energy suppliers saw profit margins in the supply of gas and electricity rise to 4.3% in 2012, up from 2.8% in 2011.

And the watchdog says supplier profit per household customer rose to £53 last year, from £30 a year earlier.

However, the power generation profit margins at the firms fell from 24% in 2011 to 20% in 2012.

Overall, profits in generation and supply across the half-dozen firms fell from £3.9bn in 2011 to £3.7bn in 2012.

So the retail profits have increased, but the overall profits have decreased. This is despite turnover having increased due a large hike in prices. It is a incorrect to say that the double-digit price increases paid for larger profits of the big six energy suppliers. The following tries to explain why.

Ofgem has not uploaded this latest data to its website, so I have to piece together from what is available. Factsheet 118 details the comparison of 2011 with 2010. It says


•     the average profit margin across all six suppliers for

supplying gas and electricity to homes and businesses

declined from 3.8 per cent in 2010 to 3.1 per cent in


•     the margins in generation, however, increased from

18.4 per cent in 2010 to 24.4 per cent in 2011. This is

because of higher wholesale electricity prices. Typical

generation margins also tend to be higher than in supply

to finance the capital investment needed to build power


A summary of these figures is below

In other words, there is mostly an about face from the very profitable 2011, but still much higher profits than in 2010.

Given that the profits from power generation are much higher, we need to look at this more closely. What should be recognized is the relevant rate of return generation is not ROS (Return on Sales), but ROCE (Return on Capital Employed). An indicator of this can be gleaned from Ofgem’s summaries of the major’s accounts for 2011.

For example, Scottish power has two power sectors. In 2011 it had an EBIT of 168.5 on sales of 1677.0 on “generation” and EBIT of 91.0 on sales of 172.0 on “renewables”. So the older generation has a ROS of just 10%, and the newer, cleaner, renewables a ROS of 53%. To some extent this is not surprising. Renewables – mostly wind turbines – require a huge upfront capital investment, but low operating costs. Also, the renewables capital stock is much newer. But an additional figure is also revealing – the terra-watt hours sold. The “generation” produces £82.60m/TWh, whilst “renewables” produces £101.20m/TWh.

The only other producer to give a split of energy generation is EDF energy, only this time between nuclear and non-nuclear. For nuclear power, the ROS is 40% and £48m/TWh, and for non-nuclear power, the ROS is 10% and £47m/TWh. With Hinckley C, the guaranteed index-linked rate is a minimum £92.50m/TWh.


  1. The large profits are in power generation.
  2. The profits in terms of ROS will increase with new investments, even if ROCE stays the same.
  3. The profits in terms of ROS will additionally increase with the investment in renewables and nuclear, even if ROCE stays the same as initial outlay per unit of electricity is much higher, and the operating costs are tiny, when compared with a coal or gas-fired power stations.
  4. Higher capital investment will mean above-inflation rises in headline profits and ROS, even if the proper measure of profit for generation – ROCE – stays the same.
  5. The responsibility for the Climate Change Act 2008, that generates the higher ROS figures (and much more expensive electricity) is primarily due to the last Labour Government. It was steered through by the then Environment Secretary Ed Miliband. To freeze retail prices will reduce the ROCE of the energy companies, giving a clear signal not to invest in the power generating capacity to stop the lights going out. If you want lower prices and profits, then have a truly liberalized market with fossil fuels given equal status.

Kevin Marshall


Leave a comment


  1. The only relevant data to assess whether the energy companies are making excess profits is to express the distributed profit as a percentage of the investment made by the shareholders IE their market capitalised value

    • manicbeancounter

       /  27/03/2014

      From an investors point of view, the return on capital employed is the relevant one. But Ed Milliband’s blames rising energy bills on excess profits. That is the return on sales has been increasing. Using OFGEMs figures for the big 6 energy companies I show that is not the cause.
      See my follow-up article

      However, over time I would expect the ROS to in generation rise even if the ROCE stays the same. That is due to moving to more capital intensive forms of energy generation. There are two parts to this. Wind farms have a much higher capital cost per unit of power generated than fossil fuelled power stations. Per unit of power generated costs are higher for wind, even though the fuel is free. There is also much higher costs of grid infrastructure, further exacerbating the capital/sales ratio.

  1. Notes Labour’s Analysis of the Energy Market | ManicBeancounter

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