Buying renewable energy is the fastest way to cut your eco-impact, but make sure you do your homework.
Half of an average household’s carbon dioxide emissions can come from electricity. That means you can slice your home’s carbon footprint in two simply by switching to 100 per cent GreenPower.
GreenPower is an accreditation program for renewable energy – electricity sourced from the sun, wind, water and waste. When you choose GreenPower, your retailer must buy enough new renewable energy into the grid to replace your old fossil fuel power use. Products that come with the scheme’s tick have been audited to make sure you’re getting what you pay for.
But which product is best? To help consumers cut through the spin, Total Environment Centre started Green Electricity Watch in 2002. The survey – also supported by Australian Conservation Foundation and WWF-Australia – assesses the eco-credentials of the companies and their products.
“All the retailers participate and they compete very fiercely to get a good ranking,” says Jane Castle, senior campaigner at Total Environment Centre. In the last survey, held in 2007, Origin Energy’s 100 per cent wind and solar products scored the most points (the full results are online).
If you’re thinking of making the switch, Ms Castle warns against swift deals offered by door-to-door salespeople, because they can lock you into contracts with only a low percentage of accredited GreenPower. “To actually make a difference, people should buy as high a percentage of GreenPower as they can afford.”
Generally, the higher the renewable energy content, the higher the price – but shop around because rates vary considerably among retailers. “When I switched to 100 per cent GreenPower I was nervous about getting a big bill,” says Ms Castle, “so I turned things off standby and put in compact fluorescent globes and my bill virtually didn’t change. This is not going to kill you at the bank. It might be worth one coffee a week or it might have no impact if you become really energy efficient.”
There’s one important catch to the GreenPower scheme. Although your personal footprint will come down if you buy accredited renewable energy, Australia’s overall emissions won’t.
Since the federal government signed onto the Kyoto Protocol (the global treaty limiting greenhouse gas emissions), any voluntary reductions made by individuals or businesses don’t get added on top of the pre-existing national target. Any cuts you make mean someone else will be permitted to pollute more. The proposed Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme will work in a similar way.
“It means that the big polluters will have fewer restrictions put on them,” Ms Castle says. “We’re trying to get the government to recognise consumer action as additional, by retiring a Kyoto permit for every tonne of CO2 reduced through GreenPower.”
Despite those concerns, Green Electricity Watch still recommends that people buy accredited renewable power, because it supports the industry and helps prepare for a low-emissions future. “We say, yes buy GreenPower, but also join our effort to lobby the government to change their position,” Ms Castle says.