Why is electricity bad to use

Interview: How "green" is green electricity really?

Critics hold green electricity providers against, their electricity is in truth "gray", its environmental benefits low. Is green energy a sham? Not in every case, says energy expert Veit Bürger

GEO.de: The weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT recently stated "Whoever buys green electricity receives the same gray electricity as everyone else". The environmental benefit is "close to zero". Is that correct?

Veit Bürger: It depends on the offer. "Good" green electricity has an expansion effect. This means that the demand for this electricity ensures that new green electricity systems are built: hydropower, wind power, solar systems and biomass power plants - even beyond the effects of state subsidies. "Bad" products, on the other hand, do nothing other than explicitly market the existing green electricity as ecological, without generating an additional kilowatt hour of green electricity.

What's wrong with that?

You have to remember that in Europe we already have large amounts of electricity from renewable sources, especially from hydropower. That alone could cover the entire annual electricity consumption in Germany. Only part of this electricity has so far been explicitly marketed as electricity from renewable energies. That means: There is still great potential for "bad" products that have no expansion effect, i.e. that do not guarantee that new plants will be built. Because only such new plants can displace nuclear reactors and coal-fired power plants in the long term.

As a customer, how can I tell the difference between "good" and "bad" green electricity?

In order to identify "good" green electricity, we have launched the ok-power label with the WWF and the North Rhine-Westphalia consumer center. At least one third of products that are certified with it must come from systems that are no more than six years old.

Now, however, critics claim that the demand for green energy means that hardly any new plants have been built that would not have been built anyway.

Indeed, it is difficult to clearly refute this allegation. It would be unfair to claim that Plant X was only built to because there are the customers of the product Y. But there are market mechanisms that clearly demonstrate such a connection: electricity from new systems is traded more expensive than electricity from old systems. That means: With our one-third criterion we send out a price signal - which in the end again offers investment incentives for new systems.

In other words: if you purchase ok-power-certified electricity, then in six years' time you will be supplied with electricity from systems that do not yet exist today. So it is not correct to say that green electricity at all have no expansion effect.

"Zero emissions" electricity is often advertised. Can you say in general how big the CO2 savings with green electricity really are?

We have moved away from drawing up such balance sheets. Of course, as a customer, I can say that I bought zero-emission electricity. But that does not mean that objectively something has changed in the way electricity generation is made up in Europe. Because in return, others in Europe have a little more emissions, because I took away a little bit of hydropower from them, so to speak. And the Scandinavians also have more nuclear and coal electricity if we in Germany use their hydropower and in return supply them with our gray electricity.

RECS (Renewable Energy Certificate System) is also criticized, a system for the certification of electricity from renewable energies. Such certificates are issued to green electricity producers and then bought by electricity companies, which use them to relabel the corresponding amounts of their conventional electricity mix. Isn't that consumer deception?

The debate about the RECS certificates ignores the actual topic. The certificates are nothing more and nothing less than proof that a certain amount of electricity has really been generated in a renewable energy system - regardless of how old it is, whether it was subsidized or not. The crucial question is: How do we differentiate between green electricity with an expansion effect and green electricity without an expansion effect? The RECS system does not claim to be able to do this. This role is played by independent green electricity labels such as the ok-power label.

Is it an advantage if green electricity providers buy the electricity directly from green electricity producers?

From our point of view, it makes no ecological difference at all. Because the market mechanisms are the same. The effect of the displacement of old systems by new ones is independent of whether the electricity is purchased through supply contracts or a provider is concerned about the environmental benefits in the form of certificates. In both cases, the central criterion is that systems are involved that are new and operated outside of the state subsidy systems.

The largest green electricity provider, LichtBlick, recently came under fire because it sells around one percent gray electricity to its customers, i.e. conventional electricity from all types of generation, especially nuclear and coal. The company justified itself by stating that it was about control or balancing energy, i.e. electricity with which the deviation between forecast and actual consumption is compensated for.

Two things are mixed up in the discussion: Everyone has to do with the problem of control and balancing energy, including the green electricity providers. The network operator provides these small amounts of energy. And since there is no market for green control or balancing energy, it is usually "gray" electricity. The problem with LichtBlick seems to be different. LichtBlick has large industrial customers who register increased or reduced requirements at short notice. It may be difficult to get the right quantities on the market in good time. So these short-term forecast deviations were balanced out via the energy exchange - with gray electricity. Many other green electricity providers do not have this problem - because they do not have large industrial customers. I don't see a major ecological problem if these shortfalls are compensated for in the following year in the form of a corresponding additional procurement of green electricity. In the case of LichtBlick, it is more a PR or communication problem - but with serious consequences for the general reputation of the green electricity market.

Are the "green" products from the big power companies a good choice?

If these products meet certain minimum criteria, especially the expansion effect, then there is nothing wrong with it from an ecological point of view.

But don't I accept that the money I pay the company will be reinvested in coal and nuclear power?

I can understand every consumer very well who does not want to have anything to do with the established energy industry and therefore wants to switch to an independent provider. From an ecological perspective, however, it makes no difference whether a green electricity product is offered by an independent or an established provider, provided that it has an expansion effect. That's why we made a conscious decision years ago to Products to certify, not their provider.

Do you have a tip for choosing the right provider?

We do not give specific product recommendations. The first and most important step is always: save electricity! You should then cover the remaining energy requirements with "good" green electricity.

Interview: Peter Carstens

Green electricity-critical article in the ZEIT

More about RECS (Renewable Energy Certificate System) in Germany

The homepage of the Öko-Institut Freiburg

More about the ok-power label