Meet our members – Ashleye Gunn, London CEG member and Customer Working Group member

Electricity network companies are living in “interesting times”. Historically they’ve had virtually no contact with the vast majority of their customers yet Ofgem requires the RIIO-2 business plans to demonstrably reflect and meet the needs of customers and stakeholders.

The government has made the commitment to Net Zero by 2050 and real progress is needed, but the pathways are not yet clear. Many decisions are still to be made about how best to decarbonise power, heat and transport. Investment will be needed in many areas, from data and digitalisation to resilience, yet balancing the costs between existing and future customers is not straightforward.

Coupled with this uncertainty is a background of continuing political, media and public concern that energy companies in general do not offer their customers good value, and that energy networks in particular have made excessive returns. In January 2020 the National Audit Office concluded that while Network companies have improved reliability since privatisation and met almost all the targets Ofgem set in the current RIIO price control period, returns are high relative to comparable companies and Ofgem’s expectations. Ofgem is aiming to address this in the RIIO-2 framework.

One thing that is clear is that in the next price control period UK Power Networks will be dealing directly with more of its customers than it has ever had to before as decentralised electricity generation increases and demand-side measures such as energy storage grow. Coupled with this is the challenge Ofgem has set of addressing vulnerability in a way that ensures no one is left behind in a fast changing energy sector.

As an independent consumer policy consultant specialising in improving customer outcomes in regulated markets I was naturally very interested in joining the Customer Engagement Group (CEG) for UK Power Networks. Being part of a multi-disciplinary independent expert group scrutinising and challenging the development of their business plan was an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. And as one of UK Power Networks’ customers I have a personal interest here too.

Back to that word “interesting” again. UK Power Networks really does have a very interesting set of customers and stakeholders, but one that is much more complex than for most business sectors. Engaging customers in the development of the business plan is an excellent idea, but a deceptively simple one. Many of the consumer and business customers who pay UK Power Networks’ charges via their retail energy bills have no idea who UK Power Networks are, and those who have heard of them often don’t know what they do. As for offering a view on what UK Power Networks’ business priorities should be? Actually while it’s a challenge it’s perfectly possible, as long as they receive the right background information.

Then there are the increasing numbers of ‘direct’ customers, those purchasing services such as connections directly from UK Power Networks. Energy specialists, large companies operating in other sectors and even domestic customers all come in here.

Not forgetting stakeholders such as Local Authorities who may not be customers but can have a significant influence both on what UK Power Networks can do and what it chooses to do, particularly when it comes to dealing with the climate emergency that over 70% of the Local Authorities in UK Power Networks’ regions have declared.

There won’t be a single set of customer and stakeholder views, and trade-offs will inevitably have to be made. With a training in qualitative and quantitative research, an award winning stint in advertising strategy, and 14 years at consumer organisation Which? before becoming a consultant, I am looking forward to contributing to the scrutiny and challenge that the CEG is there to deliver.