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Big six or independent? Our experts go head-to-head

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There are now more than 20 energy suppliers in Britain, but over 90% of the market is still covered by the ‘big six’. Our survey shows people are more satisfied with smaller firms, so should you ditch the big players?

Why I chose Good Energy
Sylvia Baron, Which? Energy expert

avatarI switched to a small supplier because I want independent providers to increase their market share to break the dominance of the big six.

I chose Good Energy as I like the fact that when I call them, I can get through to them quickly; when we investigated waiting times on customer-service numbers, it took only 2 minutes 25 seconds to get through, compared with 19 minutes 14 seconds for Npower.

I want to support a firm that matches every unit of electricity I buy with 100% renewable electricity. I may be paying £100 more a year than the cheapest deal, but Good Energy has said it will freeze prices until at least 31 March 2014, and has increased electricity prices only once in the last four years.

Why I chose Npower
Natalie Hitchins, Which? Home Editor

avatarI’m aware that Npower does badly in our customer surveys. But, like many people, my main consideration was price, and on the day I switched it was the cheapest.

My experiences have been mixed. It took a long time for my account to get set up, then a couple of calls to get an incorrect meter reading sorted out, where I waited on hold for ages. On the plus side, I can ring at weekends when some smaller firms are closed.

The website is slick – I like its online monitoring tools and being able to submit meter readings online. But due to a recent computer glitch Npower says many customers will receive late (and higher) bills, and call waiting times are longer due to complaints. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised.

If your energy is supplied by one of the big six, why did you pick them? Are you tempted to switch to a smaller company? And if you’re already with an independent, what tempted you away from the big six?

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I’m with EDF and for my usage the tariffs I pick are always in the top 3 for price. I’m currently on a tariff that’s fixed until March 2015. And come then, I’ll do another comparison to see where I should go or what tariff I should switch. Although that won’t preclude me from checking every now and again in the meantime.

I think the whole cashback industry is partially to blame for higher prices, but then again if the companies didn’t offer cashback in the first place that industry wouldn’t exist. Banning cashback and other sweeteners would probably reduce peoples bills by more than the latest govt cut in green taxes.

Peter says:
27 January 2014

I’m “in limbo” insofar as I have just recently decided to switch to Co-Operative from E.On (already in use at the property I moved to, and before that had been with British Gas). I decided to switch to get the fixed deal until March 2017. The switch hasn’t happened yet, but of course only afterwards will I be able to comment … so far the information provided by letter about the timetable for switching has been very clear and helpful.

One thing which has annoyed me and which rarely gets mentioned is the fact that the suppliers charge different amounts in every region. When I compared British Gas prices a few years ago it was around 15% to 18% higher in North Wales (MANWEB area) than on Humberside.

I understand there are ‘transport’ costs for the pipelines and power distribution, and also that the prices were historically different from region to region (because when they were first put onto the stock market, each region had an incumbent, so prices were adjusted by alternative companies undercutting, just to get a share of that region’s customer base).

What I feel should now be done, as well as simplifying the number of pricing methods for each firm, is to get them to fix a price available nationally as they can average out their ‘transport’ costs… (We all know that the gas fed into our boiler didn’t get here directly from XYZ energy, but from the combined resources, and the electricity isn’t from ABC power, at the other end of the country, but one of the nearest power stations).

Having to use the postcode to determine the region and then get a set of prices means that I cannot recommend a firm as being ‘cheapest’ for my three older sisters, as one lives in the South, another in the Midlands and the youngest in the North, and prices are complicated by these historic differences from almost 25 years ago, and kept by the businesses (but only, I suspect, to make bigger profits by making it more awkward to compare firms).

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“Network companies charge energy generators and suppliers for using their networks, within an overall framework agreed with Ofgem every 5 years……. Charges depend on how frequently the networks are used, how much power is transported and the distance covered by the network from the generation source to the centre of demand. Customers in different parts of the country will therefore be charged different amounts for the cost of distribution and transmission.” From a supplier document. You could average it out so that some subsidise others, or regard those most remote from supply source – and therefore requiring more distribution equipment and maintenance – to pay accordingly.