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National Audit Office report: Electricity networks

Electricity networks

This report examines how effectively Ofgem has used electricity network price controls to protect consumers and achieve government’s environmental goals.

Background to the report

Electricity networks take electricity from the power plants where it is generated, to homes and businesses where it is used. Each transmission or distribution network company (network company) serves a different region. To prevent network companies from overcharging their customers, and to ensure they provide a good service, their earnings are regulated by Ofgem, a non-ministerial government department sponsored by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS). Ofgem does this through price controls, which are multi-year regulatory settlements that provide network companies with allowances for their costs, and targets for performance. BEIS has overall responsibility for energy policy and ensuring the UK meets legislated targets for reducing carbon emissions.

Network companies have a crucial role to play to support carbon emissions reductions in the energy sector and the wider economy. By 2050, the overall amount of electricity flowing through electricity networks may need to double, to displace carbon-emitting fuels for transport and heating buildings. Growth in the overall demand for electricity and displacement of carbon-emitting fuels by renewables means that new investment is needed to upgrade electricity networks. While upgrading networks has traditionally meant reinforcing them with new cabling and substations, new technology such as battery storage may offer lower-cost methods of upgrading them. Using this technology will require significant changes to the way network companies operate.

 

Content and scope of the report

This report examines how effectively Ofgem is using RIIO (an acronym for ‘Revenue = Incentives + Innovation + Outputs’) electricity transmission and distribution network price controls to protect the interests of consumers and achieve the government’s climate change goals. It also comments on the strategic challenges BEIS and Ofgem will face in ensuring electricity networks enable the achievement of government’s climate change goals.

 

Conclusion on value for money

Under Ofgem’s current regulatory framework, electricity network companies have provided a good service, but it has cost consumers more than it should have. It is now clear that targets were set too low, budgets too high, and the impact of these decisions was compounded by Ofgem extending the regulatory period from five years to eight. In some cases, Ofgem did not use the best information available to it at the time: on financing costs, for example, where better use of evidence could have saved consumers at least £800 million. To Ofgem’s credit, it has sought to learn lessons from these experiences and design the next regulatory period differently.

Electricity networks now have a crucial role to play in helping the UK reach net zero emissions by enabling the system needed for low-carbon heat and transport. An intelligent approach to this transition could spare consumers from significant extra costs: this is illustrated by recent research which estimated that using flexible technology could help to reduce the cumulative electricity system costs, including increasing electricity system capacity, by between £17 billion and £40 billion by 2050. To maximise electricity networks’ value for money in future, Ofgem must ensure it sets stretching targets for network companies in the next regulatory period, while building enough flexibility into the price controls to respond to unexpected developments. The government must help to clarify future network requirements by bringing forward further policies for decarbonising heat and transport. And BEIS will need to ensure that the energy market is governed in a way that provides enough strategic coordination of its many actors.

 

Publication details:

ISBN: 9781786042927 [Buy a hard copy of this report]

HC: 42, 2019-20

Published date: January 30, 2020