Confidential House of Commons research on renewables and fuel poverty makes it into the Sunday Telegraph
- 20 Jun 2012, 15:10
- Ros Donald and Christian Hunt
Confidential research undertaken by the House of Commons Library
and shown to the
Sunday Telegraph suggests payments to wind power companies
Renewables Obligation (RO) - a premium paid to renewable energy
generators to help them compete with established players in the
energy market - mean 50,000 more households are in fuel poverty
than would otherwise be.
Is it right? There's no way to tell. Despite being undertaken by
the House of Commons library and cited in a national newspaper, the
research is not in the public domain - a bit of a blow to
Here's what the
Sunday Telegraph said at the end of an article on wind
subsidies published on Sunday:
"Subsidies paid to windpower companies
are forcing up to 50,000 households a year into fuel poverty,
according to analysis of government figures by the House of Commons
Increased electricity costs because of all subsidies paid to all
renewable sources of energy have pushed 100,000 families into fuel
poverty, defined as the need to spend more than 10 per cent of
household income to maintain a satisfactory heating
According to the Telegraph, "wind power payments" are estimated
to account for about half of all renewables subsidies.
Who commissioned the research?
According to two sources with knowledge of the research, the
analysis was prepared by researchers at the House of Commons
library for Chris Heaton-Harris, the Conservative MP for Daventry.
He has been campaigning against wind subsidies for several months -
earlier this year he organised a
letter signed by 100 other MPs calling for subsidies to onshore
wind farms to be "dramatically cut".
And last week, Heaton-Harris
asked energy and climate change minister Greg Barker if he'd
assessed the effect of the Department of Energy and Climate Change
(DECC)'s wind and renewables policies on fuel poverty. DECC
This may have prompted Heaton-Harris to turn to the House of
Commons Library, which can assist MPs with research. We tried to
speak with Mr Heaton-Harris to find out whether he commissioned the
research. But although he eventually responded noting that our
deadline had passed, he didn't confirm the work had been done for
him, or send us any details.
The House of Commons library produces "confidential answers to
enquiries on the full range of subjects of interest to Members of
Parliament and Commons Committees". It told us that it was entirely
up to the MP who commissioned the research as to whether they
wanted to release it.
Clearly in this case, someone released the research to the
Sunday Telegraph but no further - a somewhat depressing development
for the transparency of the energy debate. It makes the figure
difficult to understand - we don't know how it was calculated, and
we don't know whether the Sunday Telegraph referenced it
But even if we can't get the research itself, the Sunday
Telegraph says it was based on government figures. We've done an
accounting exercise to see how it was reached.
A DECC answer to a parliamentary question posed by Chris
Heaton-Harris suggests that the total amount added to an
electricity bill by payments to support renewables was £18.20 in
2010-2011 - £18 of that goes to the Renewables Obligation and 20p
According to the most recent DECC fuel poverty figures
4.75 million households in the UK were classed as being fuel poor
in 2010. Between 2009 and 2010 this number fell by 750,000,
5.5 million to 4.75 million.
How does one part of an energy bill push people into
The definition of fuel poverty used by the government is
(broadly) that a household which spends more than 10% of its income
on energy costs is fuel poor.
So, although we can't know for sure, we think the House of
Commons library analysis must have concluded that if the average
energy bill was £18.20 lower, 100,000 less households would be
spending more than 10% of their income on energy.
The 50,000 figure
The Telegraph then says that wind power accounts for around half
of RO payments - an estimate a recent report from the
Grantham Institue also makes - and concludes that 50,000
households in fuel poverty now wouldn't be if their energy bills
were £9 a year lower.
Well, if the missing calculations have been done correctly, this
may be right. But is it reasonable to say that this payment is
"forcing up to 50,000 households a year into fuel poverty" as the
Telegraph does? At the very least, this seems to be missing the
Renewables Obligation costs are not rising rapidly -
total costs to consumers from the RO have risen by £3 since
2009. But other factors are driving bills up rapidly. Most
notably, wholesale energy prices
have risen a lot, to the point where gas wholesale costs now
count for over
48 per cent of the average UK domestic energy bill, according
On the other hand, as we noted earlier, the number of households
in fuel poverty fell by 750,000 between 2009 and 2010. So it's
clear that there isn't a straightforward relationship between these
small margins on bills and fuel poverty levels, as the Telegraph's
use of these figures might suggest.
FInally, it's worth noting that (purely in terms of assessing
the calculation behind the 50,000 figure) £9 is a relatively small
amount compared to an average combined gas and electricity bill of
In this context it seems odd to us to confidently isolate one
component of an energy bill and blame it for a very precise number
of fuel poor households.It's not just odd to do this for wind
payments - it would be odd to do it for any small cost on an energy
bill. The best that you can say about it is that it doesn't give
the whole picture.
Essentially it seems that the Sunday Telegraph is talking up
wind subsidies ahead of a
government review of Renewables Obligation payments. Addressing
fuel poverty should be a priority, and for some people £9 will be a
lot, for others it won't. But it's clear that in a newspaper
article, "50,000 households a year in fuel poverty" sounds like a
much bigger deal than "£9 a year".