While the biggest overheads for industrial and manufacturing businesses are generally staff, equipment and premises costs, energy and fuel costs also have a significant impact on profitability.
Indeed, for those in the transport industry, the cost of fuel can make the difference between profit and loss and is often difficult to pass on to customers.
UK businesses are particularly vulnerable to rising energy and fuel costs for several reasons.
Electricity and gas
Approximately 50% of the UK’s electricity is produced from fossil fuels, mainly natural gas and coal, most of which are imported.
21% comes from nuclear reactors however the UK’s nuclear power stations will close gradually over the next decade, with all but one expected to stop running by 2025.
24.5% of electricity currently comes from renewable sources, mainly wind farms.
As backup the UK imports electricity but it also exports some.
Gas, on the other hand is mostly imported.
Energy companies buy supplies many months ahead on the wholesale market. The UK’s six largest suppliers, nPower, British Gas, EDF Energy, Eon and Scottish Power have announced at least one price rise this year, by an average of 5.3%, and some have also announced a second rise. They are blaming these rises on higher wholesale and policy costs (such as Government requirements for the installation of smart meters).
According to most analysts the price trend is inexorably upwards and likely to remain so. It is not helped by the reduction in the value of £Sterling following the 2016 EU referendum outcome, which has made importing anything, from raw materials to goods and services considerably more expensive.
Oil prices are vulnerable to supply and demand but here, too, there has been a steady upward trend, certainly for the last two years.
Brent Crude (from North west Europe) has risen from a per barrel price of $48.48 in July 2017 to $74.25 in July 2018. This is the source of much of the UK’s petrol and diesel. OPEC oil prices have also risen from a 2017 average $52.52 per barrel to an average of $69.02 in 2018.
Some analysts are predicting that world prices will start to reduce into 2019, but the Brexit impact on exchange rates may mean UK still having to pay more for oil. In addition, geopolitical uncertainty such as the change in the US attitude to Iran and the threat of sanctions makes a drop in prices less certain.
This is easily monitored at the petrol pump which has seen a steady rise in the prices of both petrol and diesel, currently as high as 133.1p per litre in some petrol stations.
How can SMEs reduce their energy and fuel costs?
Each company is different and much will depend on how many vehicles you need, how many and how large your buildings are and how much energy is required to run your production processes and offices.
While domestic consumers are constantly exhorted to switch energy suppliers to reduce bills, much less attention is paid to business customers doing the same. According to the website Money Saving Expert, which also provides advice for businesses, it is possible to make substantial savings through switching and negotiating with suppliers, also through collaborating with others to achieve volume discounts.
It claims: “On average small businesses spend approximately £5,100 on electricity and £4,100 on gas per year” and shopping around can save £1,000s. There are a number of buying clubs and membership organisations that are negotiating volume deals for members which again can achieve significant savings.
So, it can make sense for a business to shop around for the best deal, albeit that dual energy tariffs are not available to businesses. It is, however, possible for businesses to get one to three-year fixed rate deals.
Similarly, it makes sense to ensure vehicles and buildings are as energy efficient as possible where there are a number of grants available, although many are EU grants so don’t delay if you want to take advantage of these. Useful sources of information about grants can be found at the Energy Saving Trust and from your local authority where the development officer is normally the best person to contact.