Energy Guide

A Guide to Ethical Energy

ethical energy

The energy industry is powering us towards catastrophic climate change. On the current path we’re on, set by the 100 companies that produce the majority of greenhouse gas emissions—Shell, BP, Exxon & co—the world is projected to get four degrees warmer by the end of the century: meaning drowned coastal cities, regular killer heatwaves and the wipeout of ecosystems that support human civilisation.

It doesn’t have to be this way: it’s perfectly possible to create ethical energy that’s environmentally sustainable as well as socially responsible. But the “green” energy sector in its current form is far from perfect, with many green suppliers engaged in unhelpful practises.

So here’s everything you need to know about ethical energy, including:

💡 which of the UK’s renewable energy suppliers are greenest?

💡 is vegan energy is eco-friendly, and do we need nuclear energy to tackle the climate crisis? And:

💡 what does truly ethical energy look like?

The UK’s current fuel mix

Recent news of low-carbon energy (i.e. renewables, supported by nuclear) now making the majority of the UK’s electricity is encouraging—as is the fact that coal generation has reached a record low of 5%, thanks to the closure of plants across the UK.

But gas—which, although branded as “natural gas” by the energy industry, is a fossil fuel—still plays a major role in the UK’s fuel mix: at the time of writing, it’s at 40%. Although gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal (per unit of electricity generated), it still produces carbon nonetheless: carbon that we can’t afford to keep adding to the atmosphere if we’re going to limit warming to 1.5C in line with the Paris Agreement.

Is green electricity really green?

All of this energy is taken from power stations and generators and distributed across the country via the National Grid (a network of power lines, gas pipelines and storage facilities). Although all our energy comes from this same pool, we pay different suppliers to provide our energy. But if our energy comes from the National Grid’s mix, what does it mean to be with a “100% renewable” supplier?

In theory, it means your supplier will add as much renewable energy to the pool as what you’re taking out. This sounds like a decent trade-off—but it’s complicated by the “Renewables Obligation” that all energy suppliers have to abide by.

This means that suppliers have to present a certain amount of certificates (each equivalent to 1 megawatt hour of renewable electricity) to the energy regulator, Ofgem, each year. They can get these certificates by generating the electricity themselves, or, crucially, by buying them from someone else.

This means that it’s possible for suppliers to buy certificates without actually buying any renewable electricity. In theory, they could buy and supply nothing but coal electricity, and buy enough certificates to match it—and tell their customers that this energy is “100% renewable.”

You’d assume that the green suppliers wouldn’t do this—but it’s actually very hard to find evidence that the majority of them do anything other than buy these certificates. Ethical Consumer was only able to find evidence that Ecotricity, Green Energy UK and Octopus actually buy renewable electricity in addition to certificates, “although how much and on what terms are hard to determine.”

Is green gas really green?

All “100% renewable” suppliers use natural gas (which, again, is a fossil fuel). However, this isn’t by choice—the infrastructure just doesn’t exist yet to heat the homes of all their customers with a fully renewable alternative—and some suppliers do try to compensate for their customers’ gas emissions:

🔋 Suppliers that use a % of “green gas” (gas made from biodegradable material):

Green Energy UK: 100%

Ecotricity: 14%

Bulb: 10%

Tonik: 10%

Good Energy: 6%

Coop Energy: 25% green gas on a couple of their tariffs

💰 Suppliers that carbon offset their gas:

Pure Planet: offset 100% of their gas

Octopus: offset gas of customers on their “Super Green” tariff only

iSupplyEnergy: offset gas of customers on their “Actively Green” tariff only

(No information on the green credentials of their gas was available for the other “100% renewable” suppliers: Green Star Energy, OutfoxTheMarket, So Energy, People’s Energy and Yorkshire Energy).

But the effectiveness of these measures is also up for debate. Investigations have revealed that carbon offsetting projects often don’t offset the amount of pollution they were supposed to, or bring gains “that were quickly reversed or that couldn’t be accurately measured to begin with.”

And the benefits of “green gas” are also variable. Although it’s renewable, a lot of its impact depends on where the fuel comes from:

💩 Green gas from waste: This is pretty eco-friendly, as its harnesses the methane produced by waste that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere.

🌾 Green gas from specially grown crops: This isn’t actually so green, as a lot of land and water is needed to grow the fuel.

Which renewable energy suppliers are greenest?

So it’s incredibly difficult to calculate just how green the UK’s “100% renewable” energy suppliers really are. But there is one way that we can differentiate between them: additionality. Additionality just means adding something to the world that wouldn’t exist without you: and the best form of additionality that suppliers can provide is renewable energy generation.

💨 Suppliers that generate renewable electricity:

Ecotricity: Ecotricity build wind turbines and solar parks, and make a fifth of the electricity they supply themselves.

Good Energy: Have wind and solar farms across the south of England.

💰 Suppliers whose parent companies invest in renewables generation:

Octopus Energy: “We’re backed by Octopus Investments, the UK’s largest investor in solar power.”

iSupplyEnergy: Vattenfall (parent company) has a successful track record of long-term investment and growth in UK renewables, investing over £3bn since entering the market in 2008.”

🌳 Suppliers that offer other types of additionality:

Bulb: For every customer they gain, Bulb donate £1 to Trees for Cities’ project to build outdoor spaces in city schools. They also contribute to carbon offset projects.

Green Star Energy: For every customer, they plant two trees in the UK. They also invest in initiatives in the Amazon rainforest.

(No information on additionality is readily available for: Cooperative Energy, Green Energy UK, OutfoxTheMarket, People’s Energy, Pure Planet, So Energy, Tonik Energy and Yorkshire Energy).

Vegan energy: is it eco friendly?

Ecotricity are the only supplier saying they offer “vegan energy”. Two methods of green energy production—anaerobic digestion and biomass—can, if powered by waste rather than crops, contain by-products of animal farming: like slurry, manure, poultry litter, and even dead fish.

Eating a vegan diet is one of the biggest ways to reduce your impact on earth, and by switching to vegan energy, Ecotricity say, “you’re doing one of the biggest single things you can do to cut your carbon footprint.” But this is misleading—as discussed above, it depends where the fuel comes from, and Ecotricity use dedicated crops instead of waste, which isn’t so green.

But if you’re vegan for ethical rather than environmental reasons, you might want to consider switching supplier—although none of the UK’s green suppliers actually use dead animals in their energy, it’s been reported that Good Energy sourced manure from a pig farm notorious for its poor conditions, for example.

Do we need nuclear energy to tackle climate change?

Nuclear energy hardly seems eco-friendly: nuclear accidents can be horrific, killing anyone on the scene, emanating cancers into the surrounding areas and doing lasting damage to biodiversity and ecosystems. Then there’s the radioactive waste, which can take thousands of years to decay, and for which there’s still no solution more sophisticated than burying it underground.

It can seem shocking, then, that nuclear finds support among many environmentalists: not because they’re under any illusions about its safety, but because they believe that using nuclear’s relatively low-emission, already widespread infrastructure is the only way we can decarbonise our economies as rapidly as we need to. This is the argument made by the Union of Concerned Scientists (who’ve fought against nuclear proliferation for many years), the World Resources Institute and even James Lovelock, founder of the Gaia theory.

But there are plenty of voices saying nuclear isn’t a solution, arguing that nuclear plants are only more dangerous in a world of increasing freak weather events and that the capacity of renewables is greater than nuclear anyway. Both sides of the debate raise valid points: and as the climate crisis worsens, it’s a situation we’ll have to navigate carefully.

How bad is fracking?

Fracking is the process of extracting oil and gas that’s trapped inside rocks instead of flowing freely: the rocks are fractured with a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals.

The arguments for it are primarily economic: it allows access to more fuel, drives down prices, and creates lots of jobs. But the fact remains: oil and gas are fossil fuels, and we can’t burn more of them without causing catastrophic levels of warming.

It can also cause water pollution in the drilling area (the 2010 documentary Gasland showed a man near a fracking site in the US setting his tap water on fire), as well as small earthquakes.

British Gas, e.on, Scottish Power, SSE, EDF and NPower all use fracked gas. There’s an active movement working against it in the UK: actions you can take include joining anti-fracking group Frack Off, or signing the Friends of the Earth petition here.

Ethical energy consumption: Reduction and efficiency

So, the ethics of energy are incredibly complex. To recap:

💡 If you’re with a 100% renewable supplier, the electricity that comes into your home is still a mix of fossil fuels, nuclear and renewables from the National Grid—your electricity usage is being balanced out by your supplier feeding renewables into the grid (…or is it?)

💡 Natural gas is bad, but green gas can be not-so-great as a replacement if it comes from crops—it’s greener if it comes from waste, but this can contain byproducts from animal agriculture (but is it more ethical to put this waste to use?)

💡 Nuclear energy is either an essential low-emission energy source for preventing climate breakdown or a ticking timebomb that we can do perfectly well without.

All this might leave you even more confused about which supplier to choose, and what you should be looking for. But there is one easy step you can take to definitely consume energy more ethically: use less of it.

In fact, according to the International Energy Agency, if applied at scale, energy efficiency could be the single largest contributor to global emissions reduction, with the potential to reduce global electricity demand by 20%. Using less energy cuts costs too, so it really is a win win—here are some essential tips to get you started:

🏃‍♀️ Quick wins:

Turn your thermostat down one degree

Use a bowl for washing up instead of running a tap

Never leave appliances on standby

(More ideas here!)

📱 Gadgets:

Smart meter: which can tell you how much energy you’ve used, and how much it costs

Smart plug: to automatically charge your devices when emissions are lowest

Smart thermostat: so you can manage your heating remotely

Energy efficient light bulbs: either CFLs or LEDs

Ethical energy consumption: Further steps

Further steps you can take centre around insulating your whole house: roof, loft, walls, floors and windows. This can be pricey, but the expense is recovered in the savings you make on your heating bills long term.

Generating your own energy is another possibility: options include domestic wind turbines or a micro CHP, but for most people, installing solar panels on your house will be the best option. Although it’s true that emissions and costs are incurred in making and installing the panels, they quickly make up for this: the Energy Saving Trust’s solar energy calculator can give you an idea of how much money and CO2 you can save.

A model for ethical energy: community energy

community energy

Image credits: Repowering London & North Kensington Community Energy

However much additionality the green suppliers might provide, at the end of the day they’re still private companies—their primary goal is to make a profit. Although they’ll surely have an important role to play in the transition to a low carbon world, there is an alternative way of generating energy that puts purpose before profit: community energy.

Community energy when a group of local people come together to generate their own renewable energy. Its structure is fundamentally democratic: no matter how much you invest in a local project, from £50 to £5000, you’ll have an equal say in how the project is run, which means projects benefit the whole community, not just the people at the top.

If you live in London, you can find your local community energy project here: if you’re in England, look here.

Ethical energy resources

🏢 Organisations

Electricity Info: News and information about the UK’s electricity supply

Energy Saving Trust: Independent and impartial organisation educating on the importance of saving energy

Ethical Consumer: Reviews of UK company ethics and ethical shopping guides

Frack Off: Taking action against fracking and extreme energy across the UK

RE:NEW: Free support to make London’s homes more energy efficient

Repowering London: Facilitating community energy projects across London

(Note: We’ve contacted all renewable suppliers to clarify: a) whether they purchase renewable electricity directly, not only certificates, b) the steps they’re taking to move away from natural gas and, in the meantime, to reduce its impact, c) what additionality they offer and d) their stance on fracking. We’ll keep this article updated accordingly).

Sign up to our newsletter

Subscribe for fortnightly guides to ethical living and news on the best new ethical brands 🙌