Exits by S'pore electricity suppliers sparked by price volatility amid global energy crisis

Of the 10 remaining retailers, at least two others are set for the exit door. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - The prospect of surging energy prices for the next few years and a severely diminished ability to effectively hedge against volatile conditions are what spurred the departure of two retailers from Singapore's open electricity market (OEM), experts said.

Of the 10 remaining retailers, at least two others are set for the exit door.

But the experts also said the ones still standing will likely be able to continue to offer savings on the regulatory rate set by the national grid operator SP Group, and that consumers would still stand to gain from competition in the sector.

"While there have been signals for some weeks now regarding the global energy price crisis, and recognition that this will spill over into Singapore's domestic electricity markets, the recent events have still emerged as something of a surprise," said Dr David Broadstock, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore's Energy Studies Institute.

"Such extreme and sudden choices are rare in most market contexts - it is essentially an overnight reorganisation of an industry."

Singapore's fourth-largest retailer iSwitch, as well as Ohm Energy, announced their departures from the market just days apart.

iSwitch said on Oct 13 that it would cease operations on Nov 11 due to "current electricity market conditions".

Ohm Energy on Oct 15 informed customers it was exiting the market effective the same day due to "a volatile electricity market" rendering its prices unsustainable.

Elsewhere, Best Electricity Supply's website no longer contains information on any plans, and on Diamond Electric's website, the only plan on offer is a zero per cent discount off the prevailing regulated tariff of 25.8 cents per kilowatt hour.

An e-mail to an existing Diamond Electric customer seen by The Straits Times cited "increasing costs of electricity" for the discontinuation of a similar plan. The retailer advised the customer to switch to another retailer by Nov 6 or be switched back to SP Group on Nov 7.

iSwitch, Ohm Energy, Best Electricity and Diamond Electric did not respond to queries.

The OEM's official price comparison tool now lists only plans offered by the eight other retailers.

Of these, six - Geneco, Keppel Electric, PacificLight Energy, Sembcorp Power, Senoko Energy and Tuas Power - are backed by power-generation companies.

The other two, Union Power and Sunseap Energy, are now offering plans with only marginal price differences compared with the regulated tariff.

Earlier this month, Trade and Industry Minister Gan Kim Yong cautioned in a written parliamentary response that fuel prices have more than doubled over the past 18 months, and that global movements would affect Singapore - which imports nearly 100 per cent of its energy needs.

Dr Broadstock, an energy economist, noted that Singapore's electricity futures are generally trading at a higher price today than at any point in their history, with a curve suggesting that high energy prices will be locked in until December 2023.

Retailers in the OEM - which first opened up to residential households in 2018 - thus have to choose between future unknown but increasingly volatile spot, or real-time, market outcomes and locking in high costs on the basis of currently tradable futures.

"The ability to hedge effectively is greatly diminished," said Dr Broadstock.

Hedging is a financial instrument protecting against price volatility, by locking in profits on market movements.

Said OCBC Bank economist Howie Lee: "No one ever fully hedges 100 per cent of their position - it is costly to do so."

Smaller electricity retailers, with their tight profit margins, are typically more under-hedged.

"Once wholesale prices soar through the roof, they normally find themselves deep in the red," said Mr Lee. "I can imagine how painful it must be for them now and am not surprised some have exited."

Said business lecturer Tan Tsiat Siong from the Singapore University of Social Sciences: "In other words, retailers offering fixed price plans are promising to sell electricity at a cheap price - and sometimes in large volume - without sufficiently ensuring that they would be able to purchase this electricity at low prices."

"These companies simply cannot afford to sustain operations given that prices are expected to stay high for a while," he added. "Holding out requires adequate risk capital, which smaller retailers lack."

Observers said independent retailers also had to compete in a saturated Singapore market - with 12 retailers for 1.4 million residential households - and for some of them, at the disadvantage of not having their own power generation assets.

They added that while market consolidation - potentially in the hands of just retailers backed by power generation companies - would result in fewer options for consumers, it is not necessarily cause for alarm.

Continued competition, for one, would still bring about benefits such as improved service quality, greater choice of customised product offerings and overall lower prices compared with tariffs.

"Consolidations have also been seen in many other markets," said Professor Subodh Mhaisalkar, executive director of the Energy Research Institute at Nanyang Technological University. "The OEM retailer route still brings savings to the consumers and this would override any concerns of some retailers exiting the business."

Mr Sharad Somani, KPMG Singapore partner and the head of infrastructure advisory, called on industry regulator Energy Market Authority to review the appropriate number of retailers for a competitive yet financially and commercially sustainable retail market space.

"Singapore's market size can likely accommodate around five to seven retailers, for them to co-exist with healthy competition," he said.

The energy authority could also set up financial parameters of monitoring to pick up retailers with early warning signs and to encourage consolidations where apt, suggested Mr Somani.

As for retailers, he noted that in some other countries, they are known to go beyond electricity to provide anything from energy management solutions to broadband and heating. These additional offerings improve the stickiness of their customer base and increase revenue per customer.

Said Mr Somani: "Retailers will need to reinvent their business model and offer more value-added and diverse services to stay relevant, competitive and profitable in the long term."

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