In February 2017, the German Federal Cartel Office (Bundeskartellamt, FCO) issued commitment decisions, binding several district heating suppliers mainly operating in western and northern Germany. The district heating suppliers undertook the obligation to reimburse their customers in the total amount of approx. 55 million euros, as the Bundeskartellamt raised suspicions of abusive price fixing between the companies in recent years.
The FCO initiated the inquiry into the district heating sector in 2009, as the unique specifics of the district heating market may result in limited competition and eventually in excessive pricing due to potential dominant positions occupied by district heating suppliers. District heating networks work as closed circuit systems, thus hindering entrance of other suppliers into the established system or transmission into other regions. As a consequence, customers have only little chance to change their supplier in favor of a more cost-friendly competitor, even more so as switching to another form of heating altogether proves to be cost intensive as well.
Based on the findings of the FCO, antitrust proceedings against numerous district heating suppliers were initiated in 2013, focusing on such excessive pricing.
Although some of the allegations regarding what originally seemed to be excessive pricing turned out to be unsubstantiated, many suppliers agreed to compensate their customers, either by way of direct reimbursement or by way of price reductions for future supplies. In cases where the heating suppliers were no longer active in the respective region and supply was laid into the hands of local suppliers, the latter will receive the reimbursements themselves and pass them on accordingly.
Although abusive pricing in the energy sector is a difficult point to prove, the case shows that the FCO is willing to go to great lengths in order to protect customers from anti-competitive behavior. At the same time, the procedures serve as an example that the offer of reimbursement commitments can be an advisable way to avoid costly long term antitrust procedures with the FCO and German antitrust jurisdiction.