Shadow cast on 'free' energy saving light bulbsWhich? says energy efficiency scheme 'flawed'

24 March 2010

A low energy lightbulb

Energy saving light bulbs are more efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs

A Which? investigation has exposed major flaws in a flagship programme that's supposed to improve the energy efficiency of our homes and cut our energy bills and carbon emissions.

Around 182m bulbs have been distributed by energy suppliers to customers through direct mail-outs and partnerships with newspapers and retailers. These direct promotions have been banned since 1 January 2010, but this didn’t stop Npower – the least favourite supplier in our latest energy satisfaction survey – from sending 12m bulbs to its customers in a mail-out that was completed by New Year’s Eve 2009.

The light bulbs were sent out to help energy suppliers meet their Carbon Emissions Reduction Target (CERT) - this scheme to reduce energy use ends in 2011, and the suppliers get fined up to 10% of their turnover if they don't meet their targets. Suppliers were banned from distributing the bulbs following concerns that people were not using them – meaning the CO2 savings claimed by suppliers were possibly not being achieved.

When Which? questioned Npower about its light bulb mail-out, it claimed that all suppliers used light bulbs to help meet their targets (Npower has, to be fair, relied on bulbs far less than other suppliers in the past), and that CERT didn’t require suppliers to get evidence that bulbs are being used, as using them was ‘up to the customer’.

A better alternative

Energy suppliers with more than 50,000 customers (currently only the ‘big six’ of British Gas, EDF, Eon, Npower, Scottish & Southern, and Scottish Power) have to help their customers pay for energy efficiency measures, such as cavity wall insulation and loft insulation. According to the government’s own figures, sending four free bulbs to 345 households (1,377 bulbs in total) saves 68.83 tonnes of CO2 over the lifetime of the bulbs (provided they’re used in high-use fittings), saves each household £14 a year, and costs the supplier £1,886.

For the same money, an energy supplier could make a 20% contribution (the amount the government assumes suppliers will put in) towards the cost of solid wall insulation for one of Britain’s 6.6m old and poorly-insulated solid-wall properties. This would cut a typical household’s gas bill by £420 a year, and save the same amount of CO2 as all those bulbs put together – assuming that all of them do actually get used.

Not in suppliers’ interests

But it’s not in the supplier’s interests to do this, because it cannot claim the CO2 saving against its CERT target unless consumers are willing to stump up their 80% share of the cost of solid wall insulation – around £7,250 for a typical home.

And because many households do not have this kind of money – or do not want to shell out in case they move before they get their money back – less than 17,000 properties have had solid wall insulation installed under the CERT scheme to date. By comparison, there have been 860,000 installations of cheaper cavity wall and loft insulation has been topped up in nearly 1.1m homes.

Motives understandable

‘The behaviour of Npower, and other suppliers who’ve used light bulbs to help meet their targets, may look cynical, but from a purely commercial perspective it’s understandable,’ said Which? senior policy advisor, Dr Fiona Cochrane.

Which? has other concerns about CERT, particularly that a lack of financial monitoring makes it impossible to know how much money suppliers are spending on CERT, Dr Cochrane added: ‘We all pay for CERT – the average household puts in £45 a year through their bills – so we need to be confident that we’re getting value for money, and the scheme is structured in a way to deliver energy saving measures that benefit consumers, not energy suppliers.’

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