Price Comparison Tools (PCTs)
Price Comparison Tool (PCT) is termed as all digital content and applications developed to be used by consumers primarily to compare products and services online (ACER/CEER Annual Report on the Results of Monitoring the Internal Electricity and Gas Markets in 2015, Consumer Protection and Empowerment, November 2016, p. 39).
PCTs are seen as crucial instruments to provide clear and transparent information to consumers.
The said ACER/CEER Report of November 2016 refers to the following data on PCTs in 2016 in the EU energy markets:
- reliable PCTs were available in 20 EU countries for electricity and 15 for gas,
- there were some EU countries with several PCTs, such as Germany (10), Great Britain (12) and the Netherlands (9).
PCTs are either provided by the the EU Member States National Energy Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) or by an authority dealing with consumer protection (in most EU countries with one, two or three PCTs) or they can be privately-owned.
Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the internal market for electricity (recast) on common rules for the internal market in electricity (recast), 30.11.2016, COM(2016) 864 final 2016/0380 (COD)
Independent comparison tools including websites are an effective means for customers to assess the merits of different energy offers available on the market. Search costs are lower as they no longer need to collect information from individual suppliers and service providers. Such tools can provide the right balance between the need for information to be clear and concise and the need for it to be complete and comprehensive. They should aim at including the broadest possible range of available offers, and at covering the market as completely as is feasible so as to give the customer a representative overview. They can also reduce search costs as customers will not need to collect information separately from individual suppliers and service providers. It is crucial that the information given on such tools be trustworthy, impartial and transparent.
1. Member States shall ensure that customers have access, free of charge, to at least one tool comparing the offers of suppliers that meets the certification criteria set out in Annex I. The comparison tools may be operated by any entity, including private companies and public authorities or bodies. Customers should be informed of the availability of such tools.
2. Member States shall appoint an independent competent authority responsible for certifying comparison tools and ensuring that certified comparison tools continue to meet the criteria set out in Annex I.
3. Member States may require the comparison tools referred to in paragraph 1 to include comparative determinants relating to the nature of the services offered by the suppliers.
4. Any tool comparing the offers of suppliers shall be eligible to apply for certification in accordance with this Article on a voluntary and non-discriminatory basis.
The European Commission’s views on the role and functions of PCTs in the EU Internal Energy Market can be inferred from paragraphs of the Winter Energy Package of November 2016 (see in the box Recital 23 and Article 14 of the Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on the internal market for electricity (recast) on common rules for the internal market in electricity (recast), 30.11.2016, COM(2016) 864 final 2016/0380 (COD)).
The said Winter Energy Package underlines that:
- the comparison tools may be operated by any entity, including private companies and public authorities or bodies,
- customers must be informed of the availability of such tools,
- the EU Member States are required to appoint an independent competent authority responsible for certifying comparison tools and ensuring that certified comparison tools continue to meet the established criteria.
According to Article 14 and Annex I to the aforementioned Proposal of 30 November 2016, PCTs comparing the offers of suppliers will be required to meet the certification criteria.
The said provisions stipulate that the Price Comparison Tools must:
(a) be operationally independent and ensure that suppliers are given equal treatment in search;
(b) clearly disclose their owners and the natural or legal person operating the tool;
(c) set out clear, objective criteria on which the comparison will be based;
(d) use plain and unambiguous language;
(e) provide accurate and up-to-date information and state the time of the last update;
(f) include an as complete a range of energy offers as practicable covering a significant part of the market and, where the information presented is not a complete overview of the market, a clear statement to that effect, before displaying results; and
(g) provide an effective procedure to report incorrect information on published offers.
The EU Member States national regulatory authorities are entrusted with the duties of monitoring the availability of comparison websites, and that the comparison tools fulfil the criteria set out in the aforementioned Article 14 and Annex I (Article 59(1)(x) of the Proposal for the Directive).
The Council of European Energy Regulators (CEER) in the document "CEER White Paper series (paper # III) on the European Commission’s Clean Energy Proposals, 30 May 2017" (p. 5, 6) supported the European Commission’s proposals with respect to the following rules as regards PCTs:
- ensuring access, free of charge, to at least one reliable tool comparing the available offers,
- comparison tools may be operated by any entity, including private companies and public authorities or bodies.
However, some certification issues evoked the opposition of European energy regulators, which argued that:
- certification of reliable PCTs should not be imposed by European legislation, as different maturity of local markets needs tailored solutions at local level,
- public certification would not be appropriate for public PCTs, which by their nature should be independent and reliable.
CEER further stated that the general consumer (rather than sector-specific) legislation is a more efficient way to enforce reliability of comparison tools.
In the CEER's opinion public and private PCTs can and do coexist in the same market as they offer different services to customers.
Many private multi-sector comparison tools, covering energy (electricity and natural gas) in combination with other sectors (mainly communication services and financial services), currently exist in different CEER Member States.
Moreover, the ACER/CEER’s Presentation of 24 October 2017 “6th Annual Report on Monitoring the Electricity and Natural Gas Markets, Main insights”, recommended that (p. 43):
- there should be at least one reliable comparison tool per the EU Member State,
- transparency of price and non-price elements should be guaranteed, by enabling consumers to filter out additional services of offers on comparison tools.
The European Commission’s vision for the PCT’s regulatory environment, as expressed in the Winter Energy Package, has been shared, but only partially, by the European Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy (ITRE).
In its Report of 27 February 2018 (COM(2016)0864 – C8-0495/2016 – 2016/0380(COD)), ITRE proposed some tailored modifications of the PCT’s regulatory framework, namely:
- at least one tool per EU Member State must cover the whole of the market,
- the availability of PCTs must be indicated in or together with the customer’s bills,
- the EU Member States must require the PCTs to include comparative determinants relating to the nature of the services offered by the suppliers (in the European Commission’s proposal this was only optional),
- PCTs’ certification in the European Commission’s proposal was voluntary, while in the ITRE’s view it is mandatory.
CEER published its Guidelines of Good Practice (GGP) on Price Comparison Tools in 2012.
Subsequent update processes were carried out by the CEER in December 2017 and 2022 (on 22 December 2021 CEER launched public consultation "2022 Update on Guidelines of Good Practice on Comparison Tools" (Ref: C21-CEM-142-06)).