Fiona Harvey Low-energy light bulbs spark dispute in Britain, for an unexpected reason

Low-energy light bulbs have been the subject of increasing controversy as we draw closer to the date when the UK and the European Union have decided to phase out incandescent bulbs in favour of the more efficient variety.

Complaints over the quality, size and shape of low-energy bulbs, and about the kind of light they give out, and claims that the bulbs contain a list of nasty substances, (overdone claims, according to the scientists) have exercised sections of the British press. (Who knew that incandescent lightbulbs had inspired such love and devotion?)

Now energy-efficient lightbulbs are coming under attack for a different reason.

Far too many are being given out free to consumers.

Too much of a free thing is not usually a complaint from consumers, but the UK’s Local Government Association, which made the accusation, has a serious point.

The LGA says that energy suppliers are actually issuing the bulbs to wriggle out of their statutory obligations to help their customers cut their energy use. Giving out lightbulbs is cheaper than installing cavity wall or loft insulation, or making houses draughtproof.

At least this is a new twist on the ongoing light bulb saga. However, like the former issues, it may be less of a problem than first appears.

Energy utilities have an obligation in the UK to help their customers reduce their carbon footprint by a certain number of tonnes – currently 154m tonnes between 2008-11 – by funding or subsidising customers to reduce their energy usage. These funds are centred on the usual energy saving wheezes – insulation and lighting.

The LGA, which represents local councils in England, claims that energy utilities are meeting these government-set targets “mainly” by sending homeowners low-energy bulbs. It also points out that such bulbs only save people £3 a year each on their energy bills. Energy suppliers have already given out more than 120m bulbs, which is about two each for every person in the country.

The LGA wants the government to toughen these targets so that energy companies have to insulate more people’s lofts and walls. According to the body, this could help 1.4m householders save £220 a year each and create more jobs for workers in the UK. The bulbs mostly come from abroad, says the LGA, but insulating more homes could create 4,000 UK jobs.

But these claims do not quite stack up. Energy companies do not “mainly” meet their obligations under the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target by sending out bulbs. They mainly meet their targets from insulating homes: 62 per cent of the target was met by insulation in the first nine months of the CERT, according to the government, with about 30 per cent met from sending out lightbulbs.

As a result, by the end of December 2008, or about 9 months into the CERT, suppliers had already met 49 per cent of their original target of 154m tonnes of lifetime carbon savings. (The government is consulting on whether to increase this target to 185m tonnes.)

Some UK energy utilities are insulating about 120 homes per working hour, according to the Energy Retail Association.

As a result, about 800,000 homes have been insulated. Energy companies are expected to spend £3bn on meeting their CERT obligations between 2008 and 2011.

The government is also consulting on whether to change the targets so that less can be met from giving out lightbulbs.

So it may be that suppliers are being unfairly pilloried for taking an easy route. However, if they want to counter such accusations, slowing down on the issue of free bulbs might be a good idea. If they continue to give away the bulbs at the current rate, every household in the UK will have received 11 of the free bulbs by 2011, which does sound like overkill.

Yet again, however, the debate over bulbs seems to be generating more heat than light.