Friday, May 25, 2007

Green Electricity - Just A Con?

Hedgewizard raised an interesting point in response to this month's challenge.

The electricity companies' implication is that if you're on a green tarriff, they input as much extra renewable energy into the grid as you use (making your use effectively "green"). But this isn't the case. In reality, the companies generate as much power as they can sell to the grid at any given time, period. So your decision to go on a "green" tarriff makes no difference to the power generated - it's still 4.2% renewable, and nothing has changed unless the supplier is bringing new renewable plant onstream with your money. And there's the key; most of the companies offering "green" tarriffs aren't doing that. They inherited renewable plant when the industry was privatised, but they're just maintaining it.

... and he quoted some figures from an article in the June 2005 issue of The Ecologist. I've found the whole article online. I recommend you read it, it's very interesting.

We currently produce 34 per cent of our power from coal, 22 per cent from nuclear, 37 per cent from gas, yet only 3 per cent from renewables. This balance has to be dramatically shifted. The only way to do this is to build more renewable energy sources so that when old coal and nuclear power stations get decommissioned over the coming years there is enough renewable electricity being generated to replace them.

So if you want to change your electricity supplier because you're concerned about climate change, it's important to choose a supplier which invests in new renewable energy projects.

Fortunately there is a website to help you do just that. It is I have included the latest figures from them as the image in the top left of this article. As you can see, Ecotricity comes top of the league by a long way.

The Ecologist article goes on the examine all the green energy suppliers in the table, and finds that most of them are guilty of greenwashing (claiming to be green without really doing very much about it). For example, nPower spent more on new renewable energy than Ecotricity, but then again their customer base is vastly bigger so the spend per customer was much less. Also nPower is part of the group which owns Thames Water, which came top of the Environment Agency’s list of most polluting companies in the UK last year.

Personally, I want my money going to a company completely committed to building renewable energy, not one which is just a small, clean part of a much larger, dirtier whole.

I'm with nPower, but after reading this I'm seriously thinking of switching to Ecotricity. And that seems to be the "take home" message of the article. It's not enough just to switch to any old green energy supplier. If you want to make an impact on climate change, you need to switch to a supplier that is serious about building new renewable projects, and that seems to mean Ecotricity. Sorry to the six Bean-Sprouts readers who already voted in the poll to say they switched this month, I hope you picked the right one! If not, I believe you have a "cooling off" period when you are allowed to change your mind.

Finally, I found some interesting advice from the National Energy Foundation:

If you are really concerned about this, then there are two other things that you could do:

Install some electricity generating capacity on your own home, for example through adding a photovoltaic (PV) panel; or
Buy shares in a locally based renewable energy scheme, such as the community wind projects at Baywind or Westmill Farm.

You should also remember that even if you are buying green electricity, it is important not to waste power by being as energy efficient as possible - a kilowatt not used is the cleanest kilowatt of all!


Yellow said...

regarding 'Cooling Off'periods, you should have around 10 days from submitting the contract to change your mind and cancel it. This doesn't matter on how you agreed the contract, be it online, over the phone, or by signing the form on the doorstep, or in a supermarket for example. you should then get a letter from them confirming the cancellation.

Anonymous said...

I've gone over this myself previously, having researched the market for green electricity. In my opinion it's impossible for an electricity supplier to be "green" unless 100% of their power generation comes from renewable energy (wind, tide, hydro, etc) - for the reasons you mention in your post.

In addition, be careful about Which Green. It was covered in Ethical Consumer recently, and they pointed out that they're an ecotricity "initiative" (which their About Us page states, to their credit) - they are not independent. IIRC, the way they compare themselves against Good Energy is disingenuous. I don't remember the fine details, but I recommend reading EC106 (I think) of Ethical Consumer.

Good Energy are the real deal. No offsets; no games; no 'helpful'-but-biased Which? websites. I have no connection with any of the above.

Ally said...

We are with Ecotricity. As well as being fully committed to producing green power, they have fantastic customer service, you don't get stuck in a huge long queue of computer generated voices when you ring and they are friendly and helpful.

AND they aren't paying me to say this :).

Unknown said...

Yep, I looked into Good Energy when I was raising the initial point with Mel. My main beef with them is that they aren't actually investing in new capacity except in funding feasibility studies (although they are in negotiations for some wind turbines). In the main, what GE do is to act as a middle man, buying microgenerated green energy and selling it on to you at a profit - which is fine, if you're not interested in trying to drive change.

That ethical consumer article pointed out a change which I hadn't spotted though - new Ecotricity customers have a choice of two tarriffs, only one of which is 100% green! (New Energy Plus)

Nev Sutter said...

Electricity is another sector in Northern Ireland where we lack the range of options available to the rest of the UK, having a grand total of one electricity supplier, NIE.

Thankfully, they do have a renewable energy option, called EcoEnergy, which we switched to earlier in the year, but we've no way of knowing how it really compares to the likes of Ecotricity.

Vashti said...

Since the end of last year we've been on the Ecotricity New Energy tariff, which according to the website is currently 26% green, increasing year on year. This is still more than the green component of most suppliers' green tariffs.

Money is a major issue for us, and the only reason we hadn't switched before then was because of how expensive green tariffs were. The NE tariff is price-matched to our local supplier. It's affordable for everyone, and since Ecotricity are building new wind turbines, I like giving them my money.

Not long after we switched over, Swalec sent someone to our front door (they do this frequently in these parts, usually masquerading as engineers to get into the building) to try and nag us into switching back; they told us that "they keep the monthly price the same, but at the end of the year you'll be in loads of debt to them". We got our first statement a couple of weeks ago; paying the same per month to Ecotricity as we did to Swalec, we're actually 100 pounds in credit to them! If this continues we might actually be able to afford to switch to the 100% green tariff.

Anonymous said...

So the green alternative is to look into generating your own power-wind, solar, water.... Where do I, living in a flat in a suburban area go from here? Mind you, I wouldn't mind rows of mini wind turbines on the roof tops. Can't be worse than sky dishes & mobile phone masts everywhere.

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