An Energy Union for consumers: Better information and more choice

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Households have responded to increasing gas and electricity bills by consuming less energy. [Steven Depolo/Flickr]

European energy companies must provide better information to consumers, helping them to understand what they are paying for and whether they getting value for money, write Věra Jourová and Monique Goyens.

Věra Jourová is the European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers & Gender Equality. Monique Goyens is the Secretary General of The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). 

Too many consumers in the EU are still unable to take full advantage of the energy market. The European Commission’s Consumer Markets Scoreboard shows that electricity services rank much lower than other services in terms of trust, choice and comparability of offers. We are concerned that consumers find it difficult to understand their bills, preventing them from making better-informed decisions about their individual energy consumption, and from switching to a cheaper offer. Consumers who are keen to buy green energy find it difficult to check if their energy really does come from renewable sources.

Prices presented in a transparent, simple and comparable way help consumers to understand the energy offer better and make the best choices in terms of supplier, tariff and the environment. Switching is also much easier if directly comparable information is available in offers, comparison tools, and bills. Recent market research across ten member states found that only 14% of consumers considered that their energy bills were easy to understand. Studies show that the readability of bills depends on aspects such as how much information is presented on the first page, the clarity of the language used and the way elements such as energy costs, network charges, and taxes or levies are presented.

The European Consumer Organisation, BEUC, and the energy suppliers’ associations EURELECTRIC and Eurogas have taken a first step towards changing the situation by agreeing on the minimum information in advertising that energy suppliers should provide to consumers. Consumer and industry groups agreed that this should be concise, free of jargon, and in one easily accessible place, such as the supplier’s website. Now this first step must be put into practice. This sort of joint action could inspire improvements in other areas, such as bills and green offers.

This year the European Commission will propose new, improved rules for households, placing them at the centre of the transition to more flexible, sustainable and competitive energy markets. The ambition is to make it possible for households to participate more actively in this energy transition, for example by facilitating price comparison and switching providers. Consumer-oriented implementation of the Energy Union means enabling consumers to easily buy the most energy-efficient products, identifying the necessary investments to improve the energy performance of their buildings, and providing a framework for small-scale self-generation of energy. The Energy Union should allow consumers to contribute more actively to a sustainable energy system while consuming less and more efficiently.

Consumer organisations are in an excellent position to act as ‘agents of change’. As trustworthy intermediaries they play a major role, for instance, in providing tailor-made advice to consumers. BEUC member organisations across Europe have also campaigned to bring about lower prices and better energy contracts for consumers through collective energy switching campaigns.

We will work closely together to ensure the best outcome for consumers. It is only by working together that we can meet this challenge. All consumers have the right to be treated fairly, particularly when it comes to an essential service like energy.

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