Green energy guide

What does ‘green energy’ actually mean?

Green energy is any supply of electricity or gas from natural resources that will be naturally replenished or ‘renewed’ over time. Unlike finite fossil fuels such as coal, oil or gas, green energy sources will never run out, and are therefore the only sustainable way of dealing with the world’s energy consumption.

Why bother going green?

Despite what the naysayers might tell you, global warming is a serious issue. It is not something in the distant or even near future. It is happening now.

Going green won’t single handedly save the planet, but it sends out a clear message to suppliers that there is a demand for energy compatible with the natural environment. Paying for green energy also means more investment in renewable, sustainable sources, and that can only be a good thing for everyone.

Types of green energy

Solar

Solar power harnesses the sun’s light in order to create heat and electricity. This is done through the use of solar panels which contain cells that are capable of converting the energy in sunlight into electricity. The benefits are many: sunlight is abundant across the world (even in the rainy UK) and solar panels can be installed on the walls or roofs of buildings or as part of farming projects with relatively little pollution.

Wind Power

Wind power is by produced by converting wind energy into electricity by means of wind turbines or mills. In recent years, farms of wind turbines have become prevalent in the UK and have gained wide social acceptance.

Wind power is very space-efficient and easily integrated into farming projects. Obviously wind farms are dependent on the weather, which means energy generation can be variable. However, this tends to even out over the long term. Although controversies remain around their environmental impact – they have been blamed for the deaths of many airborne animals and local residents often complain about the aesthetics of wind farms – in comparison to the extraction of fossil fuels, the environmental damage caused by wind power is minimal.

Hydro Electricity

Hydro power relies on the gravitational pull from moving or falling water, generally in the form of dams or tidal generators. Hydroelectric plants are not only extremely cost effective, reliable, and resilient to economic shifts in the energy sector, but can also respond to rising and falling demands for energy in a matter of minutes.

Obviously such enormous structures have an impact on their surroundings. Blocking or releasing huge amounts of water inflicts huge changes on both nearby wildlife and human populations. To date, landscapes have been changed dramatically and millions of people displaced during the construction of hydroelectric plants.

Biomass

Biomass is organic plant or animal matter including wood, rubbish, and crops. There are six main categories of matter from which biomass energy can be derived: agricultural and manufacturing waste; rubbish; alcohol fuels derived from crops and algae; landfill gases; plants and wood.

To produce energy, biomass is burnt or goes through a chemical or biochemical process to turn it into a more efficient fuel, such as alcohol or gas.

It was previously thought that generating energy from biomass was carbon neutral. Sadly this was found to be false;biomass contributes to global warming through the release of greenhouse gases during the energy conversion process. Even so, it is more energy efficient than burning fossil fuels, and encourages the growth of forests to compensate for carbon emissions.

What are the regulators doing?

In 2009, the UK government launched the Renewable Energy Directive, which aims for 15% percent of the UK’s energy supply to be provided by renewable sources by 2020. This doesn’t sound like much, but considering that supply from renewable sources stood at a measly 3% in 2009, we’ve got a long way to go.

In addition, the Carbon Emissions Reduction Target demands that all energy companies servicing more than 250,000 consumers must promote a reduction in their customers’ carbon footprint by offering low-carbon energy sources.

The government will also begin installing smart meters as early as 2014, the idea being that by 2019, smart meters will be a feature of every home and office in the UK. These new meters allow you to accurately gauge how much energy you are consuming, and therefore find ways to reduce what you spent. You can find out more in our guide to smart meters.

What are energy companies doing?

If you look on anyone of the Big Six’s websites you will see references to investment and innovation, greener energy and ‘making the world a better place’. It’s difficult to see beyond the Disneyesque hype to find out what energy companies are really doing to switch to renewable sources.

To make it clearer to consumers, the government has instigated the Green Energy Scheme. This is a certificate awarded by an independent panel to green energy tariffs that pass one of three criteria of an additional environmental benefit: energy efficiency schemes; international offsets of carbon based fuels with investment in renewable projects; or ‘green funds’ for community scale projects in the UK.

As of 2004, all energy companies also had to meet a target of 4.9% energy from renewable sources. When some suppliers failed to reach their target, they resorted to the dirty tactic of purchasing renewable certificates from other, greener companies.

Who provides green energy?

Most energy companies now offer environmental or green energy tariffs, though often at a premium price. These vary from supplier to supplier, but generally they work in one of two ways: renewable investment tariffs or energy offsetting.

Renewable investment tariffs

Renewable investment tariffs pay a slice of your bill into a fund. This is then used by the energy company to invest in renewable energy sources such as wind farms, hydro electric energy, or solar power. Your money may also be invested in projects that attempt to counter the effects of CO2 production, such as reforestation, or scientific research.

Energy offsetting

This involves your energy company offsetting the amount you spend with them against an equivalent amount of renewable energy. It is important to note that it is impossible for the supplier to send the green energy directly to you. Instead it is added to the grid, increasing the overall ratio of renewable energy sources in the supply network.

So someone else gets the renewable energy I pay for?

Technically yes, as you will be paying for your energy company to make the overall supply just that little bit greener. Just like recycling it does feel like a drop in the ocean, but definitely one that counts.

High renewable mix tariffs

There are also a very small number of energy suppliers offering green energy tariffs with a much higher mix of renewables. As of early 2013 these are still limited to Ecotricity, Green Energy UK, and Good Energy. Although carbon fuels may still be present in your energy supply, the overall percentage of renewable energy is far higher than standard tariffs, generally falling anywhere between 60%, right up to 100%.

How do I switch to a green energy tariff?

Interested in doing your bit to preserve the environment? Use Energy Switcheroo to find the right renewable tariff, and we’ll help you switch to a greener source of energy.