Ofgem energy price cap explained

Ofgem has announced that the energy price cap will be reviewed every three months from January next year. The quarterly review period will replace the currently six-monthly review, which means households could be hit with higher bills more often.

The flipside is that a drop in prices will be reflected in bills more quickly, but even though the market is really volatile, the overall trend has been a rise in prices across 2022.

This is reflected in the latest price cap predictions, which are suggesting that it could is expected to rise to an eye-watering £3,420.

A separate set of forecasts released by energy analysts Cornwall Insight previously predicted bills would rise to £2,980 in October and then £3,003 next year. But the outlook now looks much worse.

There's no price cap on business energy. Compare deals to find cheaper prices than your supplier's out of contract rates.

This latest increase comes on the back of a £139 hike at the last review and could put even more strain on the 11 million households that are currently covered by the price cap.

The timing of the rate rise means it will come into effect as millions of households are also hit by the government's Universal Credit cut. With an estimated four million people already behind on their energy bills, there are fears this could push even more households into fuel poverty.

This was due to be the last review as the cap was only set to run until the end of 2021 set to run until the end of 2021, but it might be extended to 2023 as part of the government's new 'Energy Retail Strategy.

As ever, but the message remains that the best way to cut your gas and electricity bills is to switch energy suppliers.

In the meantime, here's all you need to know about the Ofgem energy price cap.

What is the energy price cap?

The energy price cap limits the rates energy suppliers can charge on standard variable rate and prepayment energy tariffs. Introduced by the UK government, the limit is set and reviewed every three months by Ofgem, the energy regulator. This has been changed from every six months, which means prices will change more often and could see households hit with more regular price increases.

How much is the energy price cap?

From April 2021, the price of an average standard variable energy tariff will be capped at £1,971 a year - an increase of £693 and the highest it's been since it was implemented in January 2019. The average price of prepayment gas and electricity bill will increase by £708 - from £1,309 to £2,017.

It's probably best to leave comparing energy prices and switching until we've a better idea how much supplier's new fixed rate deals will be. The typical energy switch takes 21 days or less, so switching now means you'll be overpaying for the next seven or eight weeks. It'll probably be more prudent to compare and switch in March, depening on prices.

Switching from a variable rate to a fixed rate deal means you'll lock your rate in, and not have to deal with these twice-yearly fluctuations alongside any price hikes implemented by your supplier.

How is the price cap calculated?

Ofgem calculates the level of the price cap by looking at the costs faced by suppliers - including buying energy from the wholesale market and levies for maintaining energy network infrastructure and renewable energy projects - along with the impact of a price rise on households.

Why has the price cap increased?

The level of the price cap varies depending upon the state of the market. A drop in wholesale prices saw the level of the cap fall at the last review, but this latest review has seen it incrase significantly.

Ofgem, the energy regulator, has identified three main drivers behind this latest increase:

  • Wholesale costs – The cost of energy has risen by 50% over the last six months, with gas prices hitting a record high as the world emerges from lockdown. This surge in fossil fuel prices is pushing up fuel prices across the board, including energy tariffs, as well as petrol and diesel. For gas, the global market has begun to recover from the demand reduction caused by the pandemic over the first half of 2020. As global demand has increased, global gas prices have increased. Gas prices have increased fivefold since the crash in March/April last year and have now returned to pre-pandemic levels. For the wholesale electricity market, there has been a reduction in available power supplies compared to last year which, combined with higher gas prices, has led to an increase in the wholesale price of electricity.
  • Network and Policy costs - Higher electricity distribution and transmission costs have driven a network cost increase. Most policy costs have increased, with the cost of the Renewable Obligation (RO). An inability to pay RO has been one of the main reasons why a number of energy suppliers have gone bust, so we could see more cease trading over the next 12 months.
  • Covid-19 adjustment - At the last review, the regulator added an extra £23 on the cost of the cap to cover the additional COVID-19 costs suppliers have incurred or will incur, specifically for bad debt. This is when suppliers lose money because people simply can't pay their bills, which implies that the cap really isn't working for customers. The cap level from 1 October will include a £9 adjustment which is the remaining annualised cost that suppliers need to recover following our decision in February.

What is the government doing to help households?

The government has decided against cutting VAT on energy bills, and has instead introduced the following support measures for households affected by rising energy prices:

  1. Loans to energy suppliers to enable suppliers to give all households a £200 discount on electricity bills. The discount will be applied from October 2022. This will then be paid back in equal instalments of £40 over the next five years. The idea is that this will help reduce the impact of the price cap rise and allow the cost to be spread over time.
  2. April will see households in council tax band A to D get a £150 rebate on their council tax. This covers about 80% of homes in England. Local authorities will get a discretionary fund of £150 million to help lower-income households in higher council tax band properties, along with anyone in eligible band properties that are already exempt from paying council tax.
  3. Eligibility for the Warm Home Discount has been expanded by a third to help 3 million more vulnerable households. £3 billion will be provided over the life of this parliament (at least until 2024) to help lower-income homes become more energy-efficient and save around £290 a year.

There was no announcement on whether the government will be offering any help with business energy bills.

Why was the energy price cap introduced?

Energy suppliers set different rates for different tariffs designed to meet the different needs of consumers across the country. Although changes within the industry led to the introduction of simpler and cheaper energy tariffs, it’s still the case consumers sat on standard variable rate plans pay more for their energy. The price cap was introduced to help customers on more expensive default and prepayment tariffs.

Why has the energy price cap been extended?

The price cap is reviewed by Ofgem twice each year, with any changes coming into effect in April and October.

It was due to end in 2020, but this decision was subject to a review from the regulator and will now continue throughout 2021 and into 2023.

Although switching energy supplier remains the most effective way to save money, the cap has saved around £1 billion so far, which works out at between £75 and £100 per household.

Ofgem's chief executive, Jonathan Brearley, said it would "continue to protect consumers in the difficult months ahead as we work with industry and government to build a greener, fairer energy system".

When will the energy price cap end?

The energy price cap was due to end in 2021, but it might now be extended to 2023 as part of the government's new 'Energy Retail Strategy.

How does the energy price cap work?

The cap on energy prices works by setting a maximum rate energy suppliers can charge per kWH of gas and electricity (also known as the ‘unit rate’), for households on prepayment and standard variable rate energy tariffs.

The Prepayment Meter Cap, also known as the Safeguard Tariff, was introduced in April 2017 to help low-income households and vulnerable energy customers, by limiting the unit rate suppliers can charge anyone who pays for gas or electricity in advance using a prepayment meter (including through a token-operated meter).

This Safeguard Tariff also protects customers who receive the government’s Warm Home Discount and are on a standard variable or default tariff. If you receive the Warm Home Discount but you’re on a fixed-rate tariff that you’ve chosen yourself, then this price cap won’t apply to you.

The government’s price cap on standard variable rate tariffs, known as the Default Tariff Price Cap, came into effect on January 1, 2019 and was set at a rate of £1,137 a year for a typical dual fuel customer paying by Direct Debit. This meant suppliers had to cut the price of their default tariffs, including standard variable tariffs, to the level of or below the cap.

Both price caps are reviewed twice a year – in February and August to apply in April and October respectively – and adjusted if necessary.

How much is the energy price cap?

The latest price cap reviews have seen Ofgem cut the the Prepayment Meter Cap by £17 to £1,200 per year, while the Default Tariff Cap has dropped by £17 to £1,162 per year for a dual fuel customer with typical usage.

Date Price cap cost +/-
January 2019 £1,137 -
April 2019 £1,254 +£117
October 2019 £1,179 -£75
April 2020 £1,126 -£17*
October 2020 £1,042 -£84
April 2021 £1,138 +£96
October 2021 £1,277 +£139
April 2022 £1,971 +£693

*drop was £17 although the price cap appeared to have dropped by £52, due to a change in the way Ofgem calculates 'typical' household use.

A timeline of the government cap on energy prices

The idea of a price cap on energy rates had been floating around for a number of years before it was finally implemented, here is a timeline of the government energy price cap:

2015

  • April - After first floating the idea of an energy price cap in 2011, Ed Milliband, then leader of the Labour Party makes it an official manifesto pledge in the run up to the 2015 general election. It’s a suggestion that is roundly derided by Conservatives.

2017

  • April - The Conservative party does a u-turn and makes an energy price cap part of its manifesto in the run up to the 2017 general election.

  • The Prepayment Meter Cap, also known as the Safeguard Tariff, is introduced to help low-income households and vulnerable energy customers.

  • August - After winning the general election, the Conservative government launches a review into the domestic energy market, possibly sparked by consumer outrage at a series of energy price hikes, including a 15% increase from Npower.

  • December - Ofgem confirms extension to the prepayment energy price cap, also known as the safeguard tariff, will include households on standard variable rate tariffs, but states the cap won't be implemented for at least another 12 months.

2018

2019

  • February – In its first price review, Ofgem announces the energy price cap will increase by £117 in April 2019, pushing the average standard variable energy tariff up from £1,137 to £1,254 a year.

  • April – The energy price cap rise takes effect, with many suppliers increasing their prices in line with the £1,254 a year limit.

  • June - Shell Energy is ordered to refund and compensate around 12,000 customer accounts it overcharged on its default tariffs when the price cap was introduced. In addition, the supplier has to pay £200,000 to Ofgem’s consumer redress fund, equating to a total payment of £390,000.

  • August - Ofgem announces the price cap will be cut by £75, bringing the annual cost of a standard variable rate tariff down to £1,179, while the prepayment cap will be lowered by £25 to £1,217 a year.

  • October - The new price cap rate comes into effect, reducing the level of the cap by £75 and level of the prepayment cap by £25.

2020

  • February – In its thrid price review, Ofgem announces the energy price cap will decrease by £17 in April 2020, meaning the average standard variable energy tariff will drop from £1,179 to £1,162 year. The average price of prepayment gas and electricity to fall from £1,217 to £1,200.

  • April - Ofgem changes the way it calcualtes how 'typical' household energy use is calculated and the price cap drops to £1,179 to £1,127 year. The average price of prepayment gas and electricity to fall from £1,217 to £1,164.

  • August - Ofgem announces the price cap will be cut by £84, bringing the annual cost of a standard variable rate tariff down to £1,042 - its lowest level to date. The prepayment cap will be lowered by £95 to £1,070 a year.

  • October - Folloiwng recommendations from Ofgem, the government announces the price cap will be extended throughout 2021.

2021

  • February - The fifth energy price review sees the cap on standard variable rate tariffs rise by £96 to e £1,138. The prepayment price cap will rise by £87 to £1,156.

  • April – The energy price cap rise takes effect. The cap on standard variabe rate tariffs is £1,138 - the highest it's been since October 2019 - while the prepayment cap will be £1,156.

  • August – Fears of soaring energy bills are confirmed as the sixth energy price review sees the cap on standard variable rate tariffs rise by £139 to £1,277. The prepayment price cap will rise by £153 to £1,1309.

2022

  • February - The seventh energy price review sees the cap on standard variable rate tariffs rise by £693 to e £1,917. The prepayment price cap will rise by £708 to £2,017.

  • April - The price of an average standard variable energy tariff was capped at £1,971 a year - an increase of £693 and the highest it's been since it was implemented in January 2019. The average price of prepayment gas and electricity bill increased by £708 - from £1,309 to £2,017.

  • August - Ofgem has announced that the energy price cap will be reviewed every quarter, starting in January 2022. It is expected for energy prices to rise to £3,615 when it is reviewed in January.

Will price cap on energy bills save you money?

The amount the price cap saves you will depend upon the following factors:

  • How much gas and electricity you use
  • The cost of your current energy deal
  • Whether it’s a dual fuel tariff
  • The way in which you pay your bills.

As mentioned above, the cap has been based on the average dual fuel customer who pays by Direct Debit, this means that you could still find your annual bills amount to more than the stated price cap maximum.

The price cap limits the unit rates households pay on their supplier’s default, standard variable rate tariff, which is the deal you’ll find yourself on if you’ve never switched supplier, or you’ve let a fixed rate deal expire without switching.

The initial £1,137 annual energy bill was simply an estimate for an average household, which Ofgem’s latest Typical Domestic Consumption Value figures put at 12,000 kWh for gas and 3,100 kWh for electricity. This means your actual bill will depend upon how much gas and electricity you use.

The region you live in also affects the price cap level. Households in northern Scotland, for instance, saw the first Default Tariff Price Cap set at £1,154, while those in south west England were set an upper limit of £1,173. Customers in the east Midlands will saw the lowest rate, where the initial level was set at just £1,111.

The way in which you pay your bills also has an effect on the prices you pay. If you don’t pay your bills by Direct Debit, for which most suppliers offer discounted rates, you could find yourself paying a whopping £83 more than those that do.

This also means the estimated saving of £76 a year isn't guaranteed, as many customers will use more or less energy than the average, and some suppliers will have to change their prices by more than others to comply with the cap.

What is the problem with the price cap?

Although the price cap a great idea in, in practice, it has a number of flaws. Here are some of the main problems with the price cap:

  • It could discourage households from switching - The biggest problem with the price cap is that it could actually act as a barrier to the exact thing it’s set out to achieve – saving people money on their energy bills. While capped energy prices may seem like the ideal way to prevent ‘rip-off’ energy prices, in practice, a price cap on energy rates can give energy customers a false sense of security that they’re on a good deal, when the reality is they could save much more by switching supplier. This means millions of customers will still be sat on expensive variable rate tariffs, oblivious to the fact that they’re still on a relatively expensive deal.

  • It could put an end to competitive energy prices - Then there’s the problem of suppliers hiking up the rates on their fixed rate deals for those active switchers who are engaged in the energy market. This could see prices bunch around the level of the cap, all but putting an end to any sort of competitively-priced deals. The number of cheap energy deals - those that cost less than £1,000 per year - dropped by 90% during 2018, falling from 77 at the start of the year to just eight by the end of it. This suggests that suppliers are willing to cut the number of cheap deals on offer to make up for money they might lose as a result of the price cap. This will not only see customers worse off, it could also push even more small suppliers out of business, meaning we have an increasingly less competitive energy market.

  • It won’t help everyone who’s on an expensive rate - The price cap only affects standard variable rate tariffs, which means it won’t be any use to anyone on an expensive fixed rate deal – which reinforces the point that the only way to make real savings on your energy bills is to compare rates and switch to a better deal. There are currently loads of fixed rate deals that currently cost less than the proposed price cap and could save you money whether you’re on a standard, fixed or variable rate.

How to switch energy supplier

How to switch energy supplier with UKPower. Simply enter your postcode and we'll compare energy prices from a range of suppliers. You then choose the one you prefer and we'll take care of the rest.

If you really want to take control of your utility bills, and cut the amount you pay each year, then you need to switch energy supplier. To get started, simply enter your postcode in the box on the right. Even if your current deal comes with an early exit fee, it’s worth comparing deals as you might still find one that saves you more money in the long run.

What to do if you can't pay your energy bills

If you're struggling to pay your enery bills, the first thing you need to do is let your supplier know.

Once your supplier knows your situation, you can work out a repayment plan and find out if you're eligible for extra help, such as payment breaks, priority support and schemes like the Winter Fuel Payment or £140 Warm Home Discount rebate. If you're on a prepayment meter, you might be able to claim emergency credit.

It's also worth checking out if your local food bank runs a fuel bank scheme, to help with energy payments.

If you're struggling with debts in other areas too, the Breathing Space Scheme offers a repayment freeze of up to 60 days, during which time creditors must stop any colections or enforcement notices.

If you're eligble, you should use this time to contact a debt charity such as Stepchange, National Debtline or the Money Helper (formerly the Money Advice Service) to get FREE debt advice and help sort a solution to your debt problems.

Once the breathing space ends, creditors will be able to collect the debt in the usual way.

It may also be worth contacting your local Citizens Advice for help to resvolve issues with your energy supplier. We also have more information on our guide page on how to deal with energy debt.