Renewable Energy’s Dirty Secret

We've just done some research that reveals consumers are confused and often misled about “renewable energy”. We want to see a clearer standard so we can all make more informed decisions.

Big energy companies often promote their renewable tariffs under an eco-friendly banner. Terms like Renewable, Green, and Low Carbon are used seemingly interchangeably alongside colourful graphics representing solar, wind or hydro generation.

Scratch the surface however, and these products may not be all that they seem...

The Dirty Secret

The reality is that these products often incorporate energy from ‘dirty’ sources. For example:

  • Biomass, which typically means burning imported wood pellets, as highlighted in a recent Channel 4 documentary
  • Incinerating household or farm waste
  • Energy imported from other parts of Europe, (where the definition of renewable energy includes methane gas from rotting rubbish)

Widely encouraged and subsidised by European Governments (including ours), burning biomass for energy has become very popular. This is despite a multitude of studies and experts claiming these practices are even more environmentally damaging than burning coal. That is not to mention the deforestation required to produce the pellets, or the oil-fuelled ships used to get them here...

Clearly there’s more going on with renewables than meets the eye, but how well is this communicated to consumers?

How Green are your Renewables?

In auditing the big energy company websites, we discovered a confusing variety of terms, compounded by an total lack of consistency or definition.*

  • All promote their non-standard offers with a variety of terms including ‘renewable’ ‘green’, ‘blue’, ‘better’, ‘smart’ and ‘low carbon’ - none of which are defined anywhere on site
  • Green tariffs include a variety of sources: solar, wind and hydro, but also biomass (British Gas, E.On, SSE, OVO), landfill gas (British Gas), sewage gas (OVO), and nuclear (EDF)
  • It’s unclear what energy sources Npower or Scottish Energy’s green products include
  • These tariffs usually cost more than the standard offers , despite the falling cost of renewable generation, and the generous subsidies on offer for biomass

*See below for an in depth evaluation of products offered by the Big 6.

How does all this sit with consumers?

On 26 April 2018 we surveyed 2,110 consumers, representative of the UK population. What we found makes for very interesting reading:*

  • 87% of people want energy companies to provide information on exactly what sources go into their renewable energy.
  • Only 34% of the respondents knew that renewable energy includes biomass, in contrast to 85% who believed that renewable meant solar and wind power, and 75% who also included hydro power.
  • When offered an explanation of what biomass is, only 23% of respondents agreed that it could be suitably interpreted as 'green' energy.

* This research was carried out by Populus on behalf of Squeaky. Fieldwork took place between the 25th and 26th April 2018 to a UK sample of 2,110 adults aged 18+ and weighted to the profile of all UK adults. Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at www.populus.co.uk.

Our plan to clean up green energy

We’re calling on energy industry regulator Ofgem to develop and enforce a clear standard labelling system for energy products, a little like the colour-coded nutritional information on pre-packaged food.

Here’s something we made earlier…

These simple and clearly-defined labels would provide the information that people need to make informed choices about the source of their energy.

Clean Energy

  • Energy that is derived from natural, non-polluting, UK resources that are capable of being replenished in a short time scale, such as wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal and hydropower.

Renewable Energy

  • Energy that is derived from non-fossil sources: wind, solar, geothermal, wave, tidal, hydropower, biomass, landfill gas, sewage treatment plant gas and biogases, and can be imported from overseas.

Standard Energy

  • Energy that is derived from all forms of generation including oil, coal, gas, nuclear and renewable energy.

If you agree that energy companies should adopt this labelling, please tweet this image to @ofgem, your energy company and your local MP with the hashtag #dirtysecret and #energycleanup

Our review of big energy companies' websites

On 30 April 2018 we audited information available on these energy company’s websites about their ‘green’ tariffs, to try to understand what terms they use, what sources they contain, and how consistent they are. Here’s what we found.

*British Gas and SSE only seem to show renewables/low carbon tariffs for business customers. It’s not possible to find a similar tariff for a residential customer

*All providers are part of the REGO scheme to prove to the final customer that a given share of energy was produced from renewable source