By Robert McLachlan 26/05/2019 15

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 2015 35 customers
April 2016 473
April 2017 1619
April 2018 3102
April 2019 5831

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 into 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.

15 Responses to “Green electricity: Is it for real?”

  • Contracts do not supply electricity – generating machines do!
    When (if) a large proportion of electricity consumers have switched to Ecotricity from where is that business going to be able to buy only ‘green’ electricity at times when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun not shining?

  • @Ron – individual customers and their suppliers is only one part of the whole system, but they do act so as to make more renewable energy. The immediate answer to your question is that if a supplier (Pioneer Energy in this case) has contracts to supply a certain amount of renewable energy, and their own supplies fail, they will have to buy more from elsewhere and take a loss. The bigger question of 100% renewable electricity for NZ, what kind of system will get us there, and whether it’s a good idea, needs a separate look.

  • I am still puzzled. Are the engineers who control the national grid, so as to maintain a stable uninterrupted electricity supply, somehow able to direct the flow of electrons so as to ensure that Ecotricity’s customers receive electrons which have come from only ‘green/renewable’ sources, whether these be hydro, biogas, solar, wind, or geothermal? I hasten to add that I am 100% in favour of stopping electricity production from burning fossil fuels, throughout the whole world, as soon as possible.
    My concern is that businesses which purport to be ‘green’ might actually, when you look at the matter from a physics aspect, be no more carbon reductive than any others. Not recognizing this possibility leads to people falsely thinking they are doing something worthwhile about AGW, and thereby detracting from what is truly required. Politicians are no less able to be deluded -witness carbon credits.

  • @Ron – the problem is no more complex than those who claim ot source “ethically produced (insert name of comodity item here)”

    Of course the electrons are unidentifiable at an individual level. However what matters is the source of their movement (as far as I know, no-one is actually “producing” electrons, just shuffling them). As long as a reasonable audit process shows that as a retailer I am only paying for electricty produced by “green” methods, the company’s position is valid and justified.

    If, at some point, they run into supply problems ie there is no “green” electricity, economics says the wholesale price of wholesomely pushed electrons will go up, and so more suppliers will step in. As long as retail customers are prepared to pay a premium, the ultimate endpoint is a shift from house-brand, generic electron supply to branded ethically produced, macrobioticlow carbon or no carbon electrons.

  • Hi Ashton, I find your first sentence above incomprehensible, so can only ignore it.
    However it still seems to me that the modus of Ecotricity amounts to green-wash, and hence is counterproductive as a means of contributing to real action to alleviate global warming. I would suppose that at any one time there is only a certain amount of ‘green’ electricity produced and flowing through the national grid, fixed by how much the rivers are flowing, how much wind is blowing, how much the sun is shining, how much geothermal steam is coming up, and how much biomass is being burned (etc?). (Maybe I am wrong, such that actually market forces lead to the generator companies turning on and off ‘green’ production so as to maximise their own profits)
    So if Ecotricity takes more of the ‘green’ electricity surely there must be less available for the other retailers to pass on to their customers – hence no benefit overall. Just a bit more profit to Ecotricity. As in creative accounting.
    I can certainly see that if an increased customer demand for ‘green’ electricity were to lead to electricity generators installing more ‘green’ machines to produce this then there should be less need for fossil fuel sources, but I very much doubt that it is any lack of demand which is holding up the transition. Instead there are other more complex societal factors, such as the need to raise large amounts of capital, and a high degree of nimby-ism turning up at RMA hearings.
    Also, I am sceptical that burning biomass to generate electricity is helpful. Getting the biomass grown, harvested, transported, chopped up and finally in to the burners takes a lot of fossil fuel usage, and furthermore it is not at all established that the CO2 output in such power stations is all recaptured when the replacement biomass is grown.

  • Well it would be good if the New Zealand scientists started looking at where cutting edge research is. LENR (formerly known as Cold Fusion) apparently does have a possible solution. Some research into hydrogen solutions would be good to as it is the most abundant element in the universe and cars can run off it. All the answers are there, just a matter of making it work.
    Apparently it is not in interests of the economy to bring in disruptive technologies.

  • Hi Ron. The point of the first sentence is that we already have a wide range of products that are branded, but in reality are undifferentiable to the consumer. Petrol, flour, and coffee beans are easily conceptualised examples. There is a market of consumers prepared to pay a premium for so-called “Ethically farmed” eggs, meat etc, or anything labelled GE-free. Those consumers rely on an audit process and the honesty of the supplier to accept they are true to label.

    Electricity is no different. Although an electron is an electron is an electron, value can be found in how that electron came to be freed, and a price can be attached to that value. In short, Ecotricity have identified a group of consumers prepared to pay a small premium for “green” electricity. This incrementally drives up the price of green electricity, which then incrementally drives up the likelihood that a company involved in producing electricity will build green instead of black generators. In the long term then, substitution takes place.

    Its less societal than technical factors holding back solar and wind replacing black fuel electricity generation in New Zealand. Put simply, our supply grid is not designed to cope with the big changes in output that happen very quickly with solar and wind. In any case, by far the largest source of electricity in NZ is hydro – an already green method.

  • Hi Ashton. Yes, people can and do put monetary value on all manner of things and concepts. It’s called creative accounting.
    I can agree that it is just about possible that if enough electricity customers sign up with Ecotricity then the people trying to replace ‘black’ with more ‘green’ generation might be nudged into doing so a little more quickly. But we should not expect this effect to do very much good.
    Yes, we are very lucky in NZ to have relatively abundant hydro sources for electricity, but this has now reached a practical limit. So if all the fossil fuel energy in use here for transport, cooking, heating, industrial processing, etc. is to be replaced with electric energy then geothermal, solar and wind are simply not cheap and easy solutions to fill the void. I am not a grid engineer, but I can’t believe it is just a simple and cheap matter to redesign and rebuild the grid, with adequate control mechanisms, to allow sufficient reliable’ green’ supplies to fill the void. Very large capital outlays, and consequently very large electricity price increases, must surely be required to rebuild the grid , along with the great costs of installing huge wind and solar installations, which moreover naturally will encounter nimby-ism. These are societal factors.

  • Ecotricity is not greenwash, although it is very, very small and the effect is at the margins. Nothing wrong with starting small though. For example, companies that are CEMARS or CarboNZero certified have an extra incentive to buy green electricity – in this way the lower-emission sector can form a kind of economic sub-ecosystem within the larger economy. Absolutely lack of demand is the main reason that renewable supply has hardly increased at all in 5 years (although the new Turitea and (likely) Waverley wind farms are a big plus). Nimbyism has not been a large issue in New Zealand, the great majority of proposed wind farms have been consented (but not built).

    The big issue of how to get to 100% renewable electricity, or energy, is going to be discussed a lot in coming years. The best study I know at present is Transpower’s “Te Mauri Hiko” from 2018. They find that most of the issues (grid, supply, and daily load balancing) are solvable with present technology. E.g. in their model wind power triples by 2050, which is not much considering the existing wind farms were built in 10 years. Total energy demand decreases due to the fall in fossil fuel usage, which saves money as well. The big outlier is seasonal load balancing which will require something new, like large-scale pumped hydro.

  • The biggest contribution to greener electricity in NZ would be closing Tiwai Point smelter. It would also crash electricity prices, cause big losses to the electricity companies, and raise unemployment in Southland.

  • Owen
    It is worse than that. The Tiwai Point power can’t be used anywhere north of North Otago without billions of dollars of grid upgrades. Basically, they would need to build a new 500MW line from Southland to Whakamaru. There are a couple of papers on the Transpower website that detail it, at least in general terms. Even replacing Huntly with generation from further south than Hamilton will need large grid investment. This cis in addition to building the actual generation plant.

    Anyone who says that there are easy solutions to NZ’s future energy needs and requirements doesn’t know what they are talking about.

  • Thanks for that very interesting information. Has anyone done any pricing on how much it would cost to upgrade the grid, and how long it would take? And what would happen to power prices when it was complete?

  • Owen
    The big part of any new transmission line is getting the consent, especially as it has to go through National Parks and Conservation Areas. That would take decades to get. It would also need a new DC cable and new convertor stations. Costs would be billions for the lines. The 2018 Transpower Transmission Planning Document estimates $200M to just uprate from 400 to 600MVA and only the Clutha to Twizel section. Close Tiwai and you need an extra 500MVA capacity – that is a new double circuit line. The new Wairakei to Whakamaru double circuit line cost about $2.5M per km 10 years ago and that was an easy build.
    The cost of the lines would add to the transmission component of the power charges, so you would be looking at ten cents or more a unit increase for just that capital spend. To do the maths better than a thumbsuck, NZ load is about 50TWh. – Spread that over say $4B spend and 5% rate of return plus capital repayment over 35 years. The power prices would go up, long before the line was complete.

  • Maybe if Twai goes they can use some of that electricity to produce steel from our iron sand, instead of putting it on a ship and selling it raw (what ever happened to added value in macro economics?). Think big, funny that Rob Muldoon (thanks for the dams Rob) was actually onto something.
    This whole global warming carbon credit thing seems to be a sham. Its all about economics and not looking after our backyard, otherwise hydrogen on demand would have been utilized. It has been done before and will be done again ( people shoved in hay bailers, paid off and poisoned, yes there are documented cases), science seems to do a really good job of not looking at the obvious solution. Money $$$$ Rules apparently.