Bulb Energy: Price row continues

Image copyright Thames Water Image caption The Bulb brand has been in administration since December 23

One of the UK’s biggest companies is suspending its Bulb electricity and gas tariff as the sector’s price row stretches into its sixth week.

The Bulb brand has been in administration since Wednesday, prompting the National Trading Standards chief executive to warn that customers “must be aware of this reality”.

The Bulb tariff is on special arrangements with National Trading Standards – so has not been affected.

It was only launched in October.

Image copyright Supplied Image caption It is estimated that 75,000 Bulb Energy customers have had their fixed tariffs terminated

The premium electricity tariff is marketed as an “electronic ink” tariff – one that is not subject to the default fee imposed on all standard accounts under an Ofgem energy retail code.

But the tariff has not been part of Ofgem’s standard tariff guidance, which means customers are paying by post.

National Trading Standards Director of Consumer, Business and Industry Standards Steve O’Connell said: “It is vital that shoppers understand that if you have a tariff with a company referred to as special arrangements or limited liability partnerships, make sure that you are not paying with a post-paid bill.

“Only paying by post is OK if you are on an online energy deal.”

He added: “A switching process with a switching company and an accurate payment method is always an option.

“Customers must be aware of this reality. In many circumstances they may not benefit from the tariff offered by the company referred to as limited liability partnerships.”

Image copyright Bulb Image caption Robert Talbot (pictured) became Bulb’s chief executive in 2014

Shares in Bulb Energy plunged 21% after the National Trading Standards statement, at the same time as rumours of a possible takeover surfaced in the City.

A spokesman for National Trading Standards said it had not been contacted by the National Grid, the utility supplier responsible for regulating Bulb Energy.

“This is because they do not have the approval of National Trading Standards and we have not made any requests,” the spokesman said.

“We would of course seek further information if we were contacted by a supplier.”

Martin Lewis, from MoneySavingExpert.com, said the comments were a “disturbing” signal for customers.

He said: “National Trading Standards are the self-regulatory body in the energy market – unless a customer is clear what they are signing up to, which they never should be.

“And Bulb customers will see this as confirmation their current energy supplier was taking advantage of them.

“Do read the small print and then ensure your switch to a different provider has been approved.

“And if you’re still struggling to switch your own supplier, see if you qualify for Energy Leap: a free 20% off at least 3 to 5 suppliers now only available to those with connections of 3 years or longer.”

Sitting somewhere between a standard tariff and a pay-as-you-go tariff, the Bulb tariff was introduced as the direct result of the company’s 2013 listing on the London Stock Exchange, as well as regulatory pressure over the payment terms of standard price reductions for those who switched.

In October, the company announced it would offer a “lighter-on-reliability tariff” for its Bulb tariff customers.

But customers who had chosen to take on a more fixed pricing deal have struggled to switch to the new arrangement, amid worries that changes are being made in advance.

Many Bulb Energy customers have made monthly payments on a standard variable tariff for 10 years – under the cover of an arrangement which it says costs £9.2m every month.

The company’s chief executive, Robert Talbot, told the BBC they had “end-of-contract” bills for the majority of those who had signed up to the fixed deal.

‘We can’t help you’

Bulb Energy is a “difficult to navigate” online site, an energy expert at uSwitch.com told BBC News – because all customers have to pay online.

The firm also offers a “full’ tariff (one which is connected to the National Grid as soon as they buy the energy), as well as dual fuel tariffs (potentially solar energy).

Although prices quoted online are not regulated, it is suggested the online price is in effect a standard tariff.

BBC’s home correspondent Sonia Sodha was met with a long, blank message when she contacted the company, saying the call would be “short”.

She received no answer as she tried to contact the company via Twitter.

When the BBC asked to be passed on the details of the call, Bulb Energy said it did not provide voicemail.

We can’t help you.

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