“Clean”, “renewable”, “sustainable” - what do they all mean?

Good question.

There is no universally agreed definition of “clean” energy but a lot of people would say solar, wind and tidal power - i.e. energy that comes from the Earth’s natural resources, such as sunlight, waves, wind and geothermal heat. These sources of power have two great advantages: they will never run out and, unlike oil, coal and gas, do not pollute the planet or cause dangerous climate change.

Then there is anaerobic digestion, which is actually less baffling than it sounds, and some might include biomass, although Squeaky would not - more of which later.

How about gas from landfill sites? Or energy from burning household waste? What if the energy isn’t even being generated in the UK, but “bought” from other parts of Europe where the definition of renewable energy includes out-dated hydropower and “methane gas from rotting rubbish”?

What’s the difference between clean energy and renewable energy and green energy? Are they even different? If your head has not exploded with the sheer complexity of it all, then well done.

What we do know is that growing business want to buy clean energy. One need look no further than a recent industry study [1], which found that nearly three-quarters (72%) of SMEs would like energy suppliers to be more committed to renewables. However, the same report says only 11% would rate their current energy supplier as excellent when it comes to renewable energy support and options. In other words, growing businesses want to buy renewable energy but cannot access it.

It’s no wonder they are finding it hard to achieve when they are faced with a barrage of distinctly dodgy information. Terms like “renewable” and “green” energy are bandied around on supplier websites and marketing. It’s all within the boundaries of the regulations. However, it’s also designed to hoodwink time-pressed customers into a product that isn’t quite what they expected.

The major suppliers have the legal muscle to locate weak points in the regulations, and so, they do. The introduction of the Renewables Obligation, for example, made it a legal requirement for energy companies to source more and more electricity from renewable sources but they were found to be charging a premium on green tariffs that supplied customers with the renewable energy that they were legally obliged to produce! [2]

Another (now closed) loophole allowed suppliers to import certificates from very old hydropower generated in Europe. Ofgem’s Retail Market Review in 2015 should also have improved transparency in the marketplace, but the sleight of hand continues.

Confusion abounds. Biomass, for example, is an area that’s particularly controversial. Is a huge power station fuelled by wood pellets shipped from the United States [3] an environmentally credible approach? Moreover, the whole premise of burning wood pellets is extremely flawed in the first place. Biomass use has been encouraged and subsidised by EU Governments and has become very popular. But studies show and, experts argue, that, burning biomass causes even more environmental damage than burning coal and only appears to be “carbon neutral” because of the way regulations have been designed.

It’s a fiendishly complicated market, with many loopholes to exploit. People can hardly be blamed for feeling bewildered and giving up. Who has the time to investigate it all? Furthermore, whose information can be trusted?

One in 10 growing businesses now generate their own electricity. That’s great news. But what about the other 90%, many of which may well be looking to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels too?

At Squeaky, our definition of clean energy is quite clear: it’s British and it’s renewable. This means solar, wind and some hydro power. Biomass is also available, but it must be from local sources and ideally make use of waste that would otherwise have been sent to landfill.

Anything else just can’t be called “Squeaky Clean Energy”.

Buying electricity directly from local renewable generators might seem like a complicated and expensive option, but that’s simply not the case. In a nutshell, though: you buy clean energy (really clean, no nonsense) direct from the source and you don’t pay a premium – even when compared with dirty fossil fuels.


[1] Haven Power study

[2] Ethical consumer 

[3] Drax biomass subsidy

[4] BBC Science And Environment

[5] Chatham House