Twelve million low-energy light bulbs were posted to households over Christmas by an energy company as part of its legal obligation to cut carbon emissions, despite government advice that many would never be used.
Npower sent out the packages last month to escape a ban on issuing unsolicited bulbs, which came into force yesterday. The German-owned company saved millions of pounds by giving away the bulbs. Alternative ways of meeting its obligation, such as insulating homes, are much more effective but up to seven times more expensive.
It faced a fine of more than £40 million, or 10 per cent of its turnover, if it failed to meet its target for improving efficiency in homes under the carbon emissions reduction target scheme.
Households have received more than 180 million free or subsidised low-energy bulbs in the past 18 months. A survey in July by the Energy Saving Trust found that the average home had six unused ones lying in drawers and cupboards.
In 2008 the Government ordered the big energy companies to invest in measures for improving energy efficiency and cutting fuel poverty.
Companies can choose how to meet their obligations. Each measure they fund is given a score for the lifetime carbon savings that it achieves.
The scheme made assumptions about the usage of light bulbs that turned out to be wildly optimistic.
Companies were allowed to register immediate carbon savings from every bulb issued on the assumption that all recipients instantly installed them in some of their most intensively used light sockets. In reality, many people either stored the bulbs or threw them away, often because they were the wrong fitting or wattage.
The companies can also meet their obligations by paying for homes to be insulated. This guarantees energy savings but is much more expensive.
According to the latest government estimates, each low-energy bulb costs an energy company £2.97 and saves 0.04 tonnes of carbon over its lifetime. Insulating the external solid walls of a three-bedroom semi-detached house costs £8,760 and saves 18.08 tonnes. A company can achieve the same score of 18.08 tonnes by posting 452 bulbs, costing only £1,342.
In the first 18 months of the scheme, companies issued 182 million bulbs but insulated only 17,000 solid-wall homes. Britain has 6.6 million solid-wall homes requiring insulation.
Companies can pass on all the costs of the scheme to their customers. Over three years it is expected to add more than £100 to the average household’s energy bills.
The Department of Energy and Climate Change quietly admitted in June that the scheme was flawed and resulting in significant wastage.
In a paragraph buried in a 30-page “impact assessment”, the department said: “Government is increasingly concerned that the number of lamps already distributed has been so high that it may work out at more than the average number of highest-use light fittings in a house.
“As such, there is an increasing risk to carbon savings under the scheme where lamps are not used, are installed on low-use light fittings, or replace existing [low-energy bulbs].”
It said that direct mailouts of bulbs would be banned from January 1, 2010, allowing six months for companies to wind down their schemes.
Npower, which had a turnover of £427 million in 2008, initially focused on home insulation but was named a few months ago as the energy supplier that was farthest from achieving its green energy target. Companies that fail to meet their obligations by 2011 will be fined up to 10 per cent of their turnover.
It began posting 12 million bulbs on November 27, five months after the ban had been announced and just as the postal system was struggling to cope with the volume of Christmas mail.
A spokeswoman for the energy company said that the scheme was designed to be completed on New Year’s Eve, hours before the ban came into force at midnight.
She admitted that Npower did not know how many of the bulbs would be used. “There is nothing under [the carbon emissions reduction target scheme] that means we have to get evidence that bulbs are being used. It’s up to the customer,” she said.