Energy production and use

According to industry regulator Ofgem, a typical UK home with medium energy usage uses 3,100 KWh of electricity every year and 12,000 KWh of gas, resulting in the production of 3.4 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide (CO2) annually.

That is why, according to the Energy Saving Trust, around a fifth of the UK’s carbon emissions come from our homes. It’s therefore not hard to see why switching to renewables is often cited as one of the most impactful changes we can all make, alongside the likes of becoming vegetarian or vegan and flying or driving far less.

As we know, to tackle climate change, the UK has set a legal commitment to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Many other countries have also agreed similar targets.

To help hit that goal, the Energy Saving Trust has said that in the UK we need to reduce emissions from heating our homes, which it says is responsible for the majority of household emissions, by 95%.

So how are we doing? This time last year the UK set a national record, when the proportion of the country’s energy derived from renewable sources reached 47%. In the previous quarter, UK renewables generated more electricity than fossil fuels for first time.

The UK is outperforming Europe as a whole, which generated 38% of its’ electricity through renewables last year. A minority of European countries are narrowly ahead of the UK, including Sweden (56.4%) and Germany (52%). The USA’s rate, by the way, is around 17%.

According to a 2015 report by the European Environment Agency (EEA), without the progress Europe had made in deploying renewables during the previous decade, CO2 emissions come 2012 could have been 7% higher. Progress, yes, but there remains a long way to go.

Despite making strong progress, the UK government was recently widely criticised for not blocking the country’s first new deep coal mine in 30 years. Greenpeace said: “The government claims to be a climate leader – but if we’re serious about tackling the climate crisis then one new coal mine is a coal mine too many.” One of the UK’s leading climate experts, Professor Sir Robert Watson, branded the plans “absolutely ridiculous” and former chief scientific adviser to the Government, Professor Sir David King, described the mine as “a big mistake”.

What is renewable energy?

Renewable (or green) energy refers to electricity generated by sources including wind, solar, hydro, biomass and geothermal energy, as opposed to fossil fuel (e.g. coal) or nuclear powered stations. 

However, The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has suggested that the UK should “move away” from using large biomass power plants to generate electricity because it is not a zero-carbon solution and in certain circumstances can produce higher emissions than using fossil fuels.

If your home is powered by a green energy supplier or you have chosen a “green tariff” from one of the UK’s “big six” (or other) providers, for every kilowatt of electricity you use in your home they will ensure that an equivalent amount of energy is added to the National Grid from renewable sources.

When it comes to gas, “green gas” (also known as biomass or biomethane) is generated through the anaerobic digestion of biodegradable organic materials including manure, human sewage, green waste and food waste.

Why make the switch to renewable energy?

Across all energy companies operating in the UK, the average proportion of their energy that is generated by renewables is around 38%. For a truly green energy supplier, it’s 100% – generated directly by that provider’s own renewables or through power bought wholesale and from other suppliers – through PPAs (power purchase agreements).

According to consumer experts Which?, many green energy providers dramatically outperform their larger rivals when it comes to customer service, as well as value for money.

According to Which?, “59% of “Big Six” customers rate their supplier good or excellent value for money, compared with 72% of medium sized companies’ customers and 81% of customers of smaller sized companies.

Increasingly, any fees owed when switching (because you are in contract with your current supplier) may be refunded by the supplier you are moving to. It’s worth noting that if you apply to leave your old energy provider within 49 days of the end of your contract, they are not allowed to charge you any exit fees. Some suppliers will also offer you a credit (on average, £50) if you switch, with the opportunity to boost your balance further by recommending friends and family to successfully switch too.

In moving to a green energy supplier you may have a better chance to support a UK company and home-grown renewable energy producers, including independents. You will also be helping to boost investment, innovation and job creation in the country’s booming renewables sector, all of which is good news for the UK economy. 

And, of course, it’s far better for our planet!

Don’t forget though, that reducing our energy consumption is just as important. In the UK, the amount of electricity we use has fallen by around 15% since 2005, largely thanks to a greater awareness of the issues and technological advances.

For example, aim to only turn the heating on when you really need to (put on a nice warm jumper or dressing gown first) and keep in mind every degree you lower the thermostat by can make a big difference to both emissions and your energy bills. Ensure that your home is well insulated, when replacing appliances and devices ensure that they are energy efficient and use eco settings wherever possible, and very simply, don’t waste energy. Turn the lights off, or just don’t turn them on etc. Depending on where you live, certain grants may be available to help with making home improvements.

Our top 5 renewable energy suppliers

  1. Octopus Energy
    Impressively, Octopus Energy, which launched in 2015, has been ranked by leading consumer website Which? as the top rated UK energy supplier four years in a row. In 2021 it has been narrowly (there’s 2% in it) pushed into second place by newcomer Outfox the Market. Only two of the UK’s “big six” suppliers appear in Which?’s top 20 and it’s worth noting that Which? is not ranking suppliers based on their green credentials. 100% of Octopus’ electricity comes from renewable sources and the company continues to invest heavily in its’ own renewables, which we think is a vitally important factor. As Ethical Consumer explains: “If companies are selling electricity as ‘green’ we think that they should be either building renewables, with a commitment to not build any further fossil-fuelled plants, or they should be buying sufficient renewable electricity through purchasing PPAs to cover 100% of customers’ electricity use.” It says that only five suppliers are doing this, Octopus being one. Around one third of Octopus’ energy comes from its’ own infrastructure. Its’ gas is 100% carbon balanced. It is quick and easy to switch online (Octopus’ website and app are excellent and easy to use) and if you use this link, you’ll receive a £50 credit upon joining. We will receive the same, which we will donate to nature and conservation charities in the UK. There are a few options when it comes to tariffs so a little more thinking to be done. Through a series of deals, the company has picked up the customers of other providers, including M&S Energy, Gen4U and Co-Op Energy in the past year.
  2. Bulb
    Founded in 2013, Bulb markets itself as the UK’s largest green energy supplier. Unlike Octopus, Bulb does not invest in and own its’ own renewables. Instead the company supports a growing network of (often independent) energy producers, whilst also buying energy from the wholesale market (energy produced by other suppliers). For this reason, unlike Octopus above (and also Ecotrictiy, Good Energy and Green Energy below) Bulb is not singled out as a producer of or direct investor in renewables by Ethical Consumer. Bulb completes Which?’s top 10 for customer service and value for money and ranked above all of the traditional ‘big six’ providers. 100% of Bulb’s electricity comes from renewable sources, with a proportion coming via power purchase agreements (PPAs) with other suppliers. Switching online is also straightforward and the website and app are well designed and easy to use. There is one easy to understand tariff, which is uncommon and something we really like, and there are no exit fees to worry about. If you are referred by a friend, like Octopus, Bulb will give you a £50 credit each. Read our interview with one of Bulb’s co-founders.
  3. Ecotricity
    Started in 1995 with “one windmill in Gloucestershire”, Ecotricity completes Which?’s top ten list and is rated 5* for customer service. 100% of its’ electricity comes from renewables; 20% of which it generates itself. Ecotricity says that it is committed to “researching and developing newer, bigger and more efficient ways of generating green electricity” and it aims to be a carbon neutral business by 2025. The company claims to offer ‘vegan energy’, meaning that “no animals or animal by-products are involved in the production of its’ electricity and gas.” As mentioned, Ethical Consumer likes that fact that Ecotricity invests in its own renewables, among other suppliers, and it features in 14th place on Which?’s list. Again, Ecotricity has a range of tarrifs so there’s a further choice to be made if you’ve opted to switch. As you’d expect, doing so is also simple and quick to do online and you can choose between a £50 John Lewis voucher or a donation to Friends of the Earth. There are no exit fees to tie you in longer term. Its’ website also contains a wealth of information on the company’s ethos and goals – more so than most – and we liked what we read.
  4. Good Energy
    Founded two decades ago, Good Energy credits itself as “the UK’s first 100% renewable electricity supplier (launched way back in 1999). Its’ model is similar to Bulb’s – Good Energy supports a growing community of over 1,600 independent generators across the UK. The company says that it is also “investing in new sources of renewable energy” and Good Energy owns its’ own solar and wind farms too (six and two respectively to be precise). The company is among the UK’s largest Feed-in Tariff providers, helping homes and businesses to generate their own green energy. As above, 100% of its’ electricity comes from renewables. Its’ gas is 10% green (“biogas” produced from organic matter like manure and sewage). Good Energy is also highlighted by Ethical Consumer as investing in its own renewables and it works with the National Trust, helping the Trust to develop its’ own renewable energy generation projects and to inspire and support others. Switching online is also straightforward, with a £50 welcome credit on offer as well as the opportunity to boost this by referring others who join. Good Energy has no exit fees should you decide to switch again in the future.
  5. Green Energy
    Founded in 2001, Green Energy broke into Which?’s list of the UK’s 25 best performing energy companies for the first time this year, occupying 12th spot. It supplies 100% renewable electricity, sourced directly from generators in the UK. 100% of its’ gas is “green”, which sets it apart from most of its’ competitors. Green Energy was the first energy provider to introduce a smart meter for customers. As with our other four top picks, switching online is quick and easy. There are no exit fees if you change your mind down the line.

You can find us on Facebook by searching for Plastic Free Home or at http://www.facebook.com/plasticfreehomeuk.

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5 Comments

  1. The link to Octopus Energy is giving me a warning not to go on to the website. Can this be fixed?

    Like

  2. It may no longer be prudent to have each recipient building’s entire electrical delivery relying on external power lines that are too susceptible to various crippling power-outage-causing events (e.g. storms and tectonic shifts)?
    And then there’s the potentially disastrous coronal mass ejection (CME) effect to consider, in which extensive power grids are vulnerable to being fried.

    I could really appreciate the liberating effect of having my own independently accessed solar-cell power supply (clear skies permitting, of course), especially considering my/our dangerous reliance on electricity.

    Each building having its own solar-cell-panel power storage/system — at least as an emergency/backup source of power — makes sense (except, of course, to the various big energy corporation CEOs whose concern is dollars-and-cents profit margin).

    Many Texas residents are now realizing this.

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      1. Interviewed by the online National Observer (posted February 12, 2019), Noam Chomsky emphasized humankind’s immense immediate need to revert to renewable energies, notably that offered by our sun.

        In Tucson, Arizona, for example, “the sun is shining … most of the year, [but] take a look and see how many solar panels you see. Our house in the suburbs is the only one that has them [in the vicinity]. People are complaining that they have a thousand-dollar electric bill per month over the summer for air conditioning but won’t put up a solar panel; and in fact the Tucson electric company makes it hard to do. For example, our solar panel has some of the panels missing because you’re not allowed to produce too much electricity … People have to come to understand that they’ve just got to [reform their habitual non-renewable energy consumption], and fast; and it doesn’t harm them, it improves their lives. For example, it even saves money,” he said.

        “But just the psychological barrier that says I … have to keep to the common beliefs [favouring fossil fuels] and that [doing otherwise] is somehow a radical thing that we have to be scared of, is a block that has to be overcome by constant educational organizational activity.”

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