Fuel bill pain? At least you're not Danish

Today, the energy companies are taking a kicking at Holyrood. Earlier this week, it was the MPs' turn in committee at Westminster.

The Big Six utilities haven't done themselves any favours in explaining their prices, the complexity of tariffs and the way they seem to bounce up faster than they fall in line with fluctuating wholesale costs.

There's one argument in their defence they're not making that loudly, but it's worth noting how British prices compare with the rest of the European Union.

Why? Perhaps because four of the Big Six suppliers are also big across Europe.

The European Commission has just issued comparable figures, showing the UK significantly below the EU average.

The average price of 100 kilowatt hours in the second half of last year, including taxes and other charges paid by households, was 17.08 euros (which converts to £12.26).

It varied widely. Denmark's costs were 27.08 euros, and Bulgaria was an outlier at 8.30 euros. The UK average price was 14.49 euros.

Balkanised pricing

What about gas? The average gigajoule in the second half of last year cost £9.92 in the UK, or 11.73 euros.

The average across the EU's 27 members ran to 15.88 euros - again meaning Britain's costs of energy are well below the continental average.

In Denmark and Sweden, the cost was over 30 euros, while Romania's the place to get bargain basement gas prices, at 7.73 euros.

Even when you convert these prices into purchasing parity standards - an artificial form of currency that buys the same volume of goods and services in all countries - you still find huge variations.

The cost of Bulgarian energy goes way up under that calculation, and you still find the UK well below average.

What about the rate of change? The European Commission found the electricity price rose on average by 4.7% between the second half of 2009 and the second half of last year. UK prices during that period fell by 1.9%

In the year before that, the EU average fell by 0.5%, and the UK prices were down by 4.6%.

There's the same story with gas, at least last year. Prices in the year to last December were up 7.7% across the EU, but down by 5.7% in the UK.

But there's a different tale to be told about the year before that. Between the second half of 2008 and the second half of 2009, EU prices fell 15.5%, but UK prices fell only 3.1%. That's one clue to the regulator, Ofgem, which is inquiring into the issue, that downward pressure on prices fails to match the upward pressure.

Energy inefficiency

What does this tell us? It seems UK customers may not have as much to complain about as they might think, at least in relative terms.

But it's also that energy markets are far from efficient throughout the European Union.

The existence of the euro doesn't seem to help much in improving transparency of pricing. In both electricity and gas, the eurozone has higher costs.

Incidentally, for Greece - currently facing austerity and riots - the household gas supply is negligible, and electricity is well below average price.

Even though it saw one of the biggest price increases during last year - up by 17% - in purchasing power terms, only France and Finland plug into the grid more cheaply.