Energy bills set to increase despite oil price fall, warns Scottish and Southern

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The Independent Online

Scottish and Southern Energy yesterday gave the clearest warning yet from leading home energy suppliers that consumers must brace themselves for a new round of gas and electricity price increases.

SSE said that despite a sharp dip in the oil price in recent weeks, it was becoming increasingly difficult to hold the prices paid by its nine million customers at current levels. "The full extent of the energy shock with which the entire global economy is having to contend had been well-documented and its full impact on prices for electricity and gas in the UK has still to be felt," warned Ian Marchant, the utility's chief executive. "We are continuing to resist the pressure to put up prices for domestic customers but it is becoming more difficult by the day."

The extent to which home energy providers' margins have been squeezed in recent months by the soaring cost of wholesale gas was underlined by a warning from SSE about the likely size of its profits in the first half of its financial year, which ends 30 September.

In previous years, SSE made the majority of its annual profits during its first half, but Mr Marchant warned this year's interim results announcement would be more downbeat, with profits in the first half expected to be "substantially lower" than in the same periods of 2006 and 2007.

Nevertheless, the company believes it will meet profits expectations for the full year, suggesting that it is planning on the basis of higher prices from the autumn onwards. Increases at SSE are likely to be broadly in line with similar price rises now expected from rival energy suppliers, with independent analysts predicting last week that gas bills will go up by 60 per cent in the next 12 months. Ann Robinson, director of consumer policy at uSwitch.com, the price comparison site, warned: "Coupled with the credit crunch and the ongoing battle to make their money go further, consumers should steel themselves for a winter of discontent."

Another round of price rises will nonetheless disappoint customers, given that the oil price has fallen back by almost 13 per cent to around $127 a barrel today, from a high of close to $148. However, the utilities argue that most of the rise in oil prices this year has not yet been reflected in home energy bills. Wholesale gas prices have also fallen less sharply than oil, correcting by around 11 per cent over the past six weeks.

Joe Malinowski, managing director of The Energy Shop, the energy market analyst, warned there was little chance of a reprieve for customers. "The gas price falls we've seen are nowhere near enough to prevent one or possibly two more rises in bills," he said. "The falls have come far too late and from too high a level to make a significant difference."

Mr Malinowski believes energy companies, including British Gas, will begin announcing price rises within the next fortnight. "Our best hope is that we get a modest rise now and probably another modest rise later on, rather than one big increase straight away." Energy analysts believe the oil price would have to fall back to around $100 a barrel for energy bills to be sustainable at their current rates. Another round of price increases will also be a major blow to the Bank of England, which has blamed energy bill costs as a major contributor towards its failure to keep inflation within 1 percentage point of its 2 per cent target.

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