What’s in a bill? How UK household electricity prices compare to other countries

30 Oct 2018

The prices paid for electricity by domestic customers in the UK has been a regular discussion point in both policy debate and the media. A particular concern is the contribution that policies to incentivise low-carbon generation and energy saving make to the bills paid by householders. In response to these concerns, the UK Energy Research Centre’s Technology and Policy Assessment team examined in detail the data available on prices in the UK and other countries to address the question: How do the impacts of government policies funded through consumer electricity bills differ between countries?

This report reviews evidence on electricity prices paid by household (i.e. domestic) consumers with a focus on the UK and selected case study countries (Germany, France, Sweden and Australia), supplemented by consolidated EU-wide data to provide a broader context. Gas prices were not examined in detail because to date, policy has generally had a much greater impact on electricity prices, and UK gas prices are in the lower quartile of the EU range for all domestic consumers and almost all commercial and industrial consumers.

Key findings
  • UK domestic electricity prices are higher than many EU countries - but not amongst the highest. They are around the median of those in Western Europe.
  • Countries make different choices over which categories of consumer bear which costs, for example how costs are shared between industry and households. Countries also differ in terms of resources, the mix of power stations, and network costs. As a result caution should be exercised when comparing electricity prices between countries. There are significant differences in price breakdown between countries, even for those with broadly similar total prices.
  • Wholesale energy and supplier costs together make the biggest component of UK domestic electricity price.
  • UK policy costs are the lowest amongst the study countries, and total UK low-carbon policy support costs per MWh are below the EU average, despite an above-average share of electricity that receives support. Policy has contributed to increases in domestic electricity prices in the UK and other countries over the past five years but UK domestic electricity bills have not increased at the same rate as prices, due to the effects of energy efficiency policies designed to reduce overall consumption.
  • There are a plethora of policies (both current and past) and taxes. This, together with a conflation of social policies and low-carbon policies, and of policy impacts with concerns over market structures, charging regimes and supplier profit margins, creates a very complex overall picture.
  • The evidence for policy impacts is largely well understood but complexity creates the opportunity for differing interpretations or selection of the facts. This may help to explain some of the continuing controversy in the area since it allows different stakeholders to interpret and represent the facts differently, or select different subsets of those facts, to suit vested interests or political positions.

Electricity price formation is complex and affected by policies in the UK and all of the case studies considered in this review. Different policy approaches, geographical factors and mixes of power generation mean that comparison requires considerable caution, avoiding over-simplification. Nevertheless there is no evidence to support the contention that policy costs are either the principal source of high domestic power prices in the UK or are high compared to the country case studies or indeed the majority of Western European nations.

Download the full report here.

Read the press release here