Green electricity: quality, additionality, efficiency

From quality standards to certification schemes – the Öko-Institut’s work on green electricity spans a wide range of topics. Read on to find out more about our basic principles and “current” activities.

What is “good” green electricity?

“Green electricity” is a somewhat open-ended term. There are major discrepancies between the concept of “green electricity”, as viewed from an ecological perspective, and the product that is actually sold by electricity suppliers as “green power”. Generally, the electricity supplied to homes comes from whichever power plant is closest – and that could be nuclear, coal- or gas-fired. So “Am I getting green power?” is really the wrong question. The question we should be asking is: “Is the world getting more green power?”

“Additional” renewable energies

From an ecological perspective, the key issue is to ensure that new renewable energy plants are built to supply green power. These should be additional to the plants which are being built anyway, e.g. in Germany under the Renewable Energy Sources Act (EEG) and other government funding schemes. Over the medium term, only these additional renewable energies in the European electricity mix will squeeze conventional power plants – coal-or gas-fired, for example – out of the market.

In Germany, renewable energies thus do make a major contribution to reducing emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, and hence to protecting the climate. As long as consumers opt for a green electricity product which meets the “additional environmental benefit” criterion, they can be sure that they have made the right choice.

However, some supposedly “green” electricity products come from old power plants – obsolete hydropower plants, for example – which were written off years ago. In this case, no additional environmental benefit is created. What happens, instead, is that existing capacities are simply redistributed, so consumers purchasing these products do not change Europe’s power generation structures over the medium time.

Choosing the right supplier: guidance and support

Quality labels are an important guide for consumers navigating their way through the complexities of the green electricity market. “ok-power” is a particularly good example. This label for green electricity products applies stringent criteria in order to verify that a product genuinely contributes to the expansion of renewable energies. The label is awarded by the association EnergieVision e.V., set up by the Öko-Institut, WWF Germany and the Consumer Association of North Rhine-Westphalia (Verbraucherzentrale NRW). It helps to create more transparency and trust in the green electricity market. The Öko-Institut carries out product certification for the ok-power label on behalf of EnergieVision.

The consumer website EcoTopTen also regularly compares the products offered by green electricity suppliers on the basis of stringent criteria, and produces recommendations on various suppliers’ green electricity tariffs. 

Energy-saving is key

But no matter which electricity product consumers choose, energy-saving is the safest and most effective form of climate protection. Every kilowatt-hour of electricity not consumed reduces the amount of climate-damaging emissions into the atmosphere. There is scope for energy-saving everywhere: for example, you can install devices at home which shut down equipment left in standby mode, or if you are shopping for new appliances, it’s best to go for the most energy-efficient option. And by buying green electricity to meet the electricity needs that remain after all these steps, you can make a real contribution to protecting the environment.

Guarantees of origin as a basis for reliable electricity labelling

Since 2013 all energy suppliers which provide their customers with electricity from renewable energies and want to acquire electricity labels are required by law to use guarantees of origin (GOs) in the determination of their “green” electricity balance. The German Renewable Energy Sources Act (Erneuerbare-Energien-Gesetz, EEG) stipulates that the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA) bears the responsibility for issuing, transferring and cancelling GOs in Germany. Since 1 January 2013, UBA has been operating a register for guarantees of origins for renewable electricity. Oeko-Institut is providing UBA with expert support for the operation and further development of this register.

 It is crucial that guarantees of origin only serve the reliable determination of the electricity balance. They do not constitute a quality standard for eco-electricity since the use of GOs does not, for example, automatically provide for the construction of new renewable power plants. Further criteria (e.g. the maximum age of power plants) are needed for determining quality; in turn, compliance with these criteria should be ensured by a quality label like the ok-power label.

Basic research for high-quality green power

The Öko-Institut’s activities, described above, are based on the work carried out as part of several ongoing or completed research projects on green power and electricity labelling, and include the development of quality standards for green electricity products, extensive studies on electricity labelling, and the development of reliable systems of accounting for energy attributes (which disclose the source of fuel used, for example).