Should you swap to a renewable energy provider to reduce your environmental impact?
Renewable energy is energy generated by a replenishable source, such as solar (sun), wind, rivers (hydroelectric), tides (tidal), or biomass. This stands in opposition to energy from fossil fuels — coal, oil, or natural gas — which are a finite resource, as well as being incredibly harmful to the environment.
Energy is generated from fossil fuels by burning them, which also releases greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, directly contributing to global warming and climate change in a dangerous way. Whilst there will be some greenhouse gases associated with renewable energy (mostly from the materials and production processes needed to create the infrastructure), they do not directly release greenhouse gases in the creation of energy.
So, in the simplest terms, if you can opt for renewable energy over energy from fossil fuel sources it will definitely lower your environmental impact as an individual.
But, as ever, it may not be quite that simple.
Not all renewable energy tariffs were created equal
In the UK in 2019 37.1% of our energy came from renewable sources, with 20% of this coming from onshore and offshore wind turbines — which was a record year for the amount of renewables in the mix. The remaining 63% came predominantly from nuclear, coal, and natural gas.
Because all of our energy in the UK comes from the National Grid, this means that regardless of what energy provider or tariff you are on, 37.1% of the energy you used in your home in 2019 was from renewable sources.
So, if that’s the case, then what difference does it actually make to be buying your energy from a renewable provider?
Well, even though all our energy comes from the same place, not all energy providers are the same. Pretty much every energy supplier today will have a green tariff, because they know it’s something consumers are actively looking for. Some suppliers have a genuine aim to increase the proportion of renewable energy in the mix and reduce the carbon emissions from our energy use. Others are taking advantage of a growing audience of energy consumers who care about their energy being fossil fuel free.
A green energy tariff should mean that any energy you buy is ‘matched’ by the company by equivalent purchases of renewable energy on your behalf. This is possible because every megawatt hour (MWh) of renewable energy generated has a Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificate (REGO) assigned to it, acting as a certificate of authentication.
In an ideal world, you would have to purchase the unit of renewable energy AND the REGO attached to it in order to sell it on to an end customer. But that’s not the case, and this is where loopholes arise.
Some energy suppliers, who are not concerned with the ‘green’ market, may choose to buy units of renewable energy simply because they are the cheapest at certain times e.g. during days of high wind or sun. Because the REGO for these units is an extra cost, they will buy the units without the REGOs. This means that other energy suppliers, who are trying to reach the ‘green’ market, can buy up those REGOs for a low cost, without actually purchasing the units of renewable energy they represent. With these REGOs, they can claim to have a renewable, green energy tariff without actually having made any investment in the renewable energy market, simply buying up unwanted REGO certificates .
So how do you make sure you’re switching to a truly green energy tariff?
As with many environmentally positive consumer decisions, it’s going to need you to invest a little time into research before you make a decision, carving a path through all the greenwashing language out there to find a truly green option.
The key is ensuring that the energy company you’re buying from is one which is truly committed to increasing the proportion of renewable energy in the mix, rather than just profiting from a growing consumer desire to do so.
So how do you tell the good from the bad?
What you should be looking for is transparency. When you go onto the energy supplier’s website, you’d expect to be able to find an account of where their energy comes from, which should include some kind of explanation about where they buy from and whether they are also buying the accompanying REGO certificates — as this will directly benefit the renewable energy industry in the UK as outlined above.
You’d also expect to see a page on their sustainability as a company, with a business plan or statement which commits to increasing the proportion of renewable energy generation in the mix and reducing non renewables. That could be about creating their own renewable energy generation projects or investing in other’s.
For instance, if you take Good Energy’s website, it’s very easy to find their ‘Our Energy’ page which outlines how their renewable energy tariffs work, as well as explaining that they have their own wind and solar farms, invest in carbon reduction projects, and buy directly from independent renewable generators across the UK.
“We buy our renewable power direct from a community of 1,600 independent, UK-based renewable generators. We also own six solar farms and two wind farms. We’ve done this for 20 years. And the emissions from the gas you use will be neutralised through our investment in verified carbon reduction projects.”
They also have several additional resources to help you dig deeper into how they work, to fact check these statements. Further, they aren’t afraid of calling out those energy suppliers who don’t operate in this way. Specifically, they are calling out British Gas (as of October 2020) for their misuse of the REGO certificates as I mentioned earlier in this article.
“Our findings show that some of Britain’s biggest energy suppliers are bulk-buying cheap certificates from outside the UK to ‘prove’ their tariffs are green. British Gas, the UK’s largest energy company, is the largest user — purchasing 20 million certificates… Doing so allows British Gas to say its tariff is renewable, even though they haven’t bought this renewable power in Britain. British Gas alone avoided paying over £48 million into schemes to support renewables in Britain in 2019–20.”
This is the kind of transparency you should expect from a company who is really working to change the way our energy system works to address the climate crisis. If these things are difficult to find on an energy supplier’s website, you can be fairly sure that the supplier is not committed to reducing their environmental impact, and that any green tariff they have is simply them making profit from consumers who want to do environmental good.
Which are good green tariffs to opt for?
This is a question I’ll leave for the experts. From research conducted in February 2020, the Energy Saving Trust have identified three UK energy suppliers which they believe to be the greenest options:
 For more information on REGOs I highly recommend the Centre for Sustainable Energy’s related post: https://www.cse.org.uk/advice/advice-and-support/green-electricity-tariffs
If you liked this post, you might also like my posts on other common decisions which influence your environmental impact:
- Should you swap to a bamboo toothbrush?
- Should you swap your car for a bike?
- Should you buy dried or tinned beans?
- Is carbon offsetting a good way to reduce your environmental impact?
- Should you swap plastic bags for tote bags?
- Which kind of milk should you buy?
- Should you swap liquid soap for solid soap bars?
- Should you buy clothes second-hand?
- Should you swap to paper straws?