Green electricity: Is it for real?

Stop flying, cut out red meat, switch to an electric car or, better yet, a bike.  Newspapers and websites are full of stories of people who have made the  switch to a low-emission lifestyle. The stories are inspiring, to me anyway, and they are definitely newsworthy. But, at least judging from the online comments (‘Not gonna happen!’), they can be irritating to others. 

Nevertheless, there are other more serious arguments that individuals should not be the main focus of climate change action. 

 The strongest point is that climate change is a global problem that can only be solved by collective action, the main vehicles for which are state regulations and international agreements. A focus on individuals, goes the argument, feeds the neoliberal cover story that people make entirely free choices and hence, if they’re choosing to burn fossil fuels, they are part of the problem. This line of thought leads to cognitive dissonance and a tendency to absolve other actors, such as fossil fuel multinationals, car manufacturers, and town planners, of responsibility. 

 A second argument is that a few committed individuals cutting their emissions merely frees up resources for others – less concerned about climate change and less motivated to act individually – to use instead. Lowering demand for petrol lowers its price, at least in the short term, allowing others to use more. 

However, as time has gone by, I have been less and less convinced by these arguments. 

First, taking action can have a powerful transformative effect.  

Second, you may find that the action was much easier than you anticipated.  Pessimists like to draw attention to the hardest steps – “people will never stop flying, that’s ridiculous!” – an angle which is countered when you find out how easy the easy steps are.

 Some movements really do start small and spread from many small centres, even if many other things have to line up to allow that to happen.

This same phenomenon happens at other levels, too, as we’re seeing now with more and more councils around New Zealand declaring climate emergencies and setting progressive mitigation targets. Same thing for companies, trumpeting their transition plans and banding together, for example in the Climate Leaders Coalition. Same thing, we hope, for nations: this model is an underlying principle of the Paris Agreement, by which actions are voluntary but will be ratcheted up over time. 

This is Elinor Ostrom’s ‘polycentric’ approach to climate change, an approach that is rapidly becoming mainstream. Ostrom won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 2009 for her studies of successful management of the commons.  Her key paper on climate change was apparently never published, but is available as a World Bank report.

With that in mind, here’s an action you can take right now with just a phone call, that won’t cost anything, and that will wipe out a huge chunk of your household emissions:


 Yes, that’s actually true. Just by switching electricity providers (0800 845 000, just saying) you can eliminate all your electricity emissions, which even in New Zealand could be 1–2 tonnes of CO2 per year. Ecotricity costs about the same as other retailers. (The exact prices depend on many factors, including where you live – the New Zealand electricity market is complicated.) 

Ecotricity is a New Zealand electricity retailer that is 100% carbon zero. Their whole operation, from the generation of the electricity to the head office, is certified zero carbon by Enviro-Mark Solutions. (Enviro-Mark themselves, a Christchurch-based spinoff from the state-owned research institute Landcare, are an exceptionally well-regarded carbon auditor with clients all over the world.)

 Once you’ve switched, you’ll find that you have an even greater incentive to electrify all your other energy uses.  

It’s hard to believe that this is even possible. After all, we have a national grid, and who knows where your actual electrons came from? And yet, it really is true. Unlike other retailers, Ecotricity does not buy electricity on the spot market. Their entire supply comes through separate contracts with renewable energy suppliers, mainly South Island hydro and biogas. Their majority shareholder is the Central Lakes Trust, a charitable trust that funds community organizations in Central Otago. None of your money is going to Genesis or Nova to run coal and gas-fired power stations. 

The Roaring Meg hydropower station on the Kawarau River. Built in 1936.
You can buy electricity from this power station!

At the moment, they are tiny, with only 0.3% of the market. But they are growing:

April 201535 customers
April 2016473
April 20171619
April 20183102
April 20195831

In the long run, more demand for renewable energy will lead to more of it being supplied.

The ability to switch to fully carbon zero electricity at no cost is pretty special to New Zealand. Clearly, Ecotricity NZ has been inspired by the (unrelated company) Ecotricity UK, which has 200,000 customers and many imitators. In the US, most consumers can opt for  ‘Green pricing’, which (at a price) ties them in to a complicated and possibly dodgy system of renewable energy credits. In Australia there are companies that offer carbon offsets and others that own only renewable generation and that have no side contracts with fossil fuel generators. But none these look quite as pure as Ecotricity. 

Robert McLachlan

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