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Greening electricity

Updated Tuesday 1st August 2006

Dave Elliott explains green electricity and looks at the choices we all have

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There's an amusing anecdote about an old lady who put saucers under her mains sockets in case the electricity leaked out on the carpet. But most of the rest of us are equally unaware of what really happens the other side of the socket - and what that might mean, not just for our carpets, but for our whole way of life.

Most people know that we waste a lot of energy - and that producing it generates pollution. But for most people that's all rather abstract. As long as it runs the heating system, lights and video, who cares - especially as it's now quite cheap. However, we may have to start caring, since the way energy is generated and used could soon have a serious impact on our lifestyle.

Most of our electricity comes from burning coal and gas - fossil fuels that won't last for ever and which create carbon dioxide gas when they are burnt in power stations. This gas is also produced by vehicle engines. Along with other so-called greenhouse gases like methane, it travels to the upper atmosphere and acts like the glass in a greenhouse, trapping the sun's heat. The result is global warming - a gradual rise in average global temperatures.

Fine you may say, the UK could do with being warmer. But, unfortunately, there is more to it than that - the whole weather and climate system may be disturbed. Higher temperatures can mean increased water vapour in the air and more rain. Predictions are that there will be 10% more rain in England and Wales and perhaps 20% more in Scotland in the decades ahead. That in turn can mean flash floods - we have already had some examples. And there could be much worse to come.

Global warming means that the seas will gradually expand and the ice caps will melt, so that sea levels will rise. The impact that this would have on the UK could be serious - much of East Anglia and the North East could eventually be inundated. But nowhere near as serious as the impact on the low lying areas of the world - such as Bangladesh and many Pacific islands, some of which could entirely disappear. Back in the UK, there's even the outside chance that the Gulf stream could be turned off - so that average UK temperatures could drop by 10 degrees C.

What can I do about it?

If that sounds worrying, then next the question ought to be - what can I do about it? Obviously, the government and the power companies can, and are doing something about it. They are pressing ahead with the development of renewable energy systems, like wind farms and wave energy devices, which don't produce carbon dioxide gas. But consumers can also help - for example, by reducing the amount of energy they waste at home - and by switching over to one of the 'green power' schemes that the power companies are offering.

Energy conservation, by insulating your loft, having cavity walls filled, using low energy light bulbs or whatever, makes sense - you save money, as well as energy. But there is the problem that you might then spend the money on energy intensive goods or services - like going on an extra holiday by jet plane. That could wipe out some or all of the carbon dioxide emission savings you had made by your initial energy saving. But if, instead, you decide to use the money you have saved to buy green power, then you will be helping to make significant reductions in emissions.

Most of the electricity supply companies now offer green power deals. They promise to match the power you use with power bought in from renewable generators, like windfarms. They will tell you which green sources they use, so you can shop around for a package you like. Most impose a small surcharge for this green power - renewables are getting cheap, but some are still more expensive than conventional sources like gas.

Switching over to green power is easy - it's just a matter of changing the billing arrangement. But you will be helping to reduce emissions. And you can buy a tumble dryer or dishwasher without feeling guilty - it will be running on pollution free power! And the other good news is that green power really is getting cheaper - so there are now some schemes which offer you green power at no extra cost.

So then, since you won't need it to pay extra for green power, how will you spend the money you have saved by re-equiping your house with low energy lights, gas condensing boilers and such like? Well, if you want to help reduce emissions further, some of the green power companies offer you a chance to invest in fund schemes designed to support specific local renewable energy projects, usually community based. So then you can feel directly involved with new green energy developments. Most people can't build a wind turbine in their back yard, but anyone can sign up to get green power at a flick of a switch - and support the development of new projects.

So far around 45 000 consumers have signed up in the UK - a small number compared to the 250 000 who have signed up in Germany and the similarly large numbers who have joined schemes like this in Denmark, and elsewhere in Europe. In part the reason could be that renewable energy technology still sounds odd and unreliable to many people in the UK. Whereas Germany now has nearly 8000 megawatts of wind turbine generation in place, we only have around 400 megawatts, and, while Denmark generates 12% of its electricity from the wind, we get less than 1%.

Our real problem, particularly in the UK, has been the availability, over the years, of relatively cheap indigenous coal and then North Sea oil and gas. These fuels may have been cheap, but, as we are now realising, they won't last for ever - soon we will have to import gas from overseas to make up for the diminishing reserves in the North Sea. Russia has lots, so has Algeria - and there are big reserves North West of, yes, you guessed right, Afghanistan.

Should we really be relying on these remote supplies of fuel which will just add to global warming? If not, does that mean we will have to go back to nuclear power, despite all its problems, instead of phasing it out, as at present? Or should we switch over to clean renewable sources, like wind, wave, tidal, which we have in plenty?

The UK's current target is to get 10% of our electricity from renewables by 2010. That's much less than most of Europe's goals - indeed, as noted earlier, Denmark already does better than that. But it's a start - and consumers can help move the process on. Switch to green? It's the least you can do.

For details of available schemes see The Green Electricity Marketplace.

News of developments in the renewable energy field, and details of schemes can also be found at the OU Energy and Environmental Research Unit.

The BBC and the Open University are not responsible for the content of external websites.

 

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