Where Does the Energy Come From for Households on Renewable Energy Plans?

Julia Crimmins wanted to go all green in heating, lighting and powering her small one-bedroom apartment on Dominick Street in the north inner-city.

“I wanted to be 100 percent green,” she says.

She tripled the depth of the insulation in the attic. She laid down cork flooring to stem heat loss underfoot and stripped out most of the old radiators save for a towel rail in the bathroom which, as for her hot water, is on a timer.

Everything runs on electricity.

So when choosing her electricity plan she opted in October 2020, she says, for one that said it was 100 percent renewable energy and, after comparing the prices she had found, was also the most expensive.

Opting for the most costly one seemed the best way to guarantee it was renewable, she says. “I thought it would be better. The cheaper ones, I wouldn’t know whether they were great or not.”

Signing up to a 100 percent renewable energy plan doesn’t always mean that the electricity piped into one’s house is fossil fuel-free, because of the system of trading units of green electric power.

Energy companies can also give customers the impression that they’re helping Ireland cut carbon emissions, when in reality that isn’t the case, says Paul Deane, an energy researcher at University College Cork’s Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine Research and Innovation (MaREI).

It doesn’t mean they aren’t supporting renewable energy elsewhere, though, he says. And with climate change a global problem, does it matter?

A Transparency Question

The reason that 100 percent renewable electricity plans are not straightforwardly green is that often they’re backed by certificates known asGuarantee of Origin (GoO)

GoOs are electronic documents ensuring the production of renewable energy in Europe. Suppliers in Europe can buy them to accredit their renewable energy plans.

It’s unclear how much energy companies in Ireland buy GoOs, and how much of the renewable energy through which plans are accounted for by these certificates.

Energy companies don’t currently have to provide information on where the renewable energy sold to their consumers comes from, said a spokesperson for the Commission for Regulation of Utilities (CRU).

The CRU has highlighted in its fuel mix disclosure reports – which are published annually to inform consumers about energy sources of suppliers – the lack of connection between purchased green labels and the final electricity sold, he said.

Bord Gáis briefly mentions on its website that it buys GoOs without getting into details. On the green electricity section ofits website, Electric Ireland, doesn’t mention its use of GoOs, and neither does Pinergy on the renewable energy section ofits website.

“We supply ALL our commercial and domestic customers with electricity generated from renewable sources of Wind, Solar and Hydro,” says the Pinergy website.

Spokespeople for Pinergy and Electric Ireland said the companies use GoOs to certify their renewable energy plans and their products are accredited by the CRU.

“With no direct access to generation assets, we must buy our electricity in the wholesale markets,” said a spokesperson for Pinergy, and it uses guarantee-of-origin certificates to validate its sourcing and provide 100 percent renewable energy.

A spokesperson for SSE Airtricity – who Crimmins, after her research, opted to sign up to a plan with – said the company’s 100 percent renewable plans are all powered by “28 onshore windfarms around the island of Ireland”.

Their plans contribute to the development of Ireland’s share of clean energy, said a spokesperson.

A Transparency Question

Often, consumers’ green electricity choices neither help to cut carbon emissions in Ireland nor to support the development of its share of renewable energy production, says Deane, the energy researcher.

“It doesn’t mean that the renewable energy comes from the country you’re in,” says Deane, who works at University College Cork’s Centre for Energy, Climate and Marine Research and Innovation (MaREI).

The system isn’t transparent, leaving consumers confused, says Deane.

“Most of the guarantees of origin that we purchased this year came from Norway. It’s difficult to see what good they’re doing in Ireland,” he says.

“You’re supporting the development of renewable projects in Norway which already has a very, very clean, renewable electricity system,” said Deane.

In 2020, Ireland imported 16.4 million GoOs, while exporting 1.4 million, says the CRU’s latest fuel mix disclosure.

It’s also unclear, Deane says, if the GoOs purchased by Irish suppliers back the development of new renewable projects.

A spokesperson for the CRU said GoOs are not required to support new renewable energy projects, and energy providers don’t have to say if they are or not.

“Currently, GOs are issued to all producers of renewable generation which are not supported via a support scheme, irrespective of whether they are new or pre-existing,” they said.

But that “they can be traced back to the origin of the generation”, they said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications referred queries, including those asking about whether there is a need for greater transparency for consumers, to the CRU.

“As the responsibility for the regulation of the electricity and gas markets is solely a matter for the CRU they will be best placed to address the specific issues raised,” they said.

Does it matter?

But does a lack of transparency amount to greenwashing?

Deane, the energy researcher at the MaREI Centre, says yes and no. “Technically, there is nothing wrong with guarantees of origin because they’re supporting renewables.”

“But I think there is a duty to explain to the householder where that renewable energy is coming from,” he says. “At the moment, it’s just not clear where these projects are built.”

It’s greenwashing, says Lynn Boylan, Sinn Féin senator and spokesperson on climate justice.

People who sign up to green plans are trying to do their bit for the planet, but suppliers let them down, she says. “They’re still paying money for energy that is being produced from fossil fuels.”

Ireland should have suppliers, and the CRU, offer clarity to consumers about their source of green-labelled electricity, she says, as in Austria where consumers are told.

“They don’t even need to change the regulations or legislation, they can do it themselves, and they can have much better transparency,” said Boylan.

She says double-counting of GoOs is also an issue, casting further doubt on its trustworthiness.

There is a risk she says, of double-counting “energy produced in one jurisdiction and being sold on paper to another,” she said.

Deane, the energy researcher, says he doesn’t believe GoOs are being double-counted. What’s important, he says, is that they don’t count towards carbon emission reductions in Ireland.

“And that’s confusing for the public because the guarantees of origin might give people the impression that they’re supporting emission reduction in Ireland,” he says.

Alan Farrell, Fine Gael TD and spokesperson on climate action, also says that the CRU should “clamp down on any impression given to the consumer market that every kilowatt of energy received by a homeowner is from a renewable source”.

Even if the current lack of transparency is not against the law, it’s breaking its spirit, said Farrell.

But green buyers are still making an ethical impact, he said. “As demand increases, so would the sources of renewable energy sought,” Farrell said.

Crimmins says that her intention is to support the production of clean energy even if it’s outside of Ireland.

Ireland doesn’t have the capacity to support the energy needs of all green buyers anyway, she says.

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Shamim Malekmian: Shamim Malekmian covers the immigration beat for Dublin Inquirer. Reach her at [email protected]

Reader responses

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Brian Mc
at 20 October at 07:41

A timely article for me - I was switching provider recently and looking at entirely renewable plans, I wondered how that could be. My worry was that if it was genuinely 100% renewable, then if the wind didn't blow strongly enough, or the sun didn't shine brightly enough, would I be hit with a blackout? Thanks for the research and explanation!

Robert Lawson
at 20 October at 10:07

I'm oddly reassured by this article. I worried that "100% renewable" claims were backed by dubious offsets, knowing that it's coming from clean Norwegian (or similar) sources is good enough for me. The planet doesn't care where the carbon comes from. Living in the midlands, I'm dismayed by the "No Turbines" signs. It's dangerous to admit support for wind projects in your area.

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