Why carbon intensity apps are greenwash

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There is an app for almost everything. One that recently drew my attention is a carbon intensity app, which at first sight looks really helpful in alerting you to when you can put washing on or charge up batteries while the electricity grid in your area has low carbon emissions.

Renewable energy is not yet stored in sufficient quantity so needs to be used when it’s available. Carbon intensity apps tell you when output from renewable sources of electricity is high and the carbon intensity of the grid is therefore low. 

What’s not to like? Well, the devil is in the detail, as the saying goes. The claims made for these apps are little more than ‘greenwash’, says ACT energy expert Fuad Al-Tawil. Teign Energy Communities (TECs) has produced a detailed explanation of why this is so.

Essentially, the only sure way to lower grid carbon emissions is to increase the renewable energy that feeds into the grid. Point in time readings from a carbon intensity app are not a reliable indicator of surplus low-carbon electricity being available. If demand for electricity from users of the apps increases when intensity is low and there is no renewable surplus, it will just lead to gas being switched on. A gas-fired power station is currently the easiest type of electricity generator to turn on and off at short notice.

There are additional complicating factors due to the way the national grid operates. The financial settlement system for generating, transporting, distributing and consuming electricity is based on price. There is no accounting for carbon emissions. This can lead to renewable generation being turned off and a gas fired power station being turned on to maintain the balance of the grid, so generation and consumption are matched. 

By all means download a carbon intensity app, but don’t assume you will be increasing the use of renewable energy and thereby reducing the carbon intensity of the electricity you buy. 

The only way to help reduce the carbon intensity of the national electricity supply is to encourage the market to build more renewable generation.  You can do this by buying a 100% green tariff from a provider.  Ideally use one of the few providers that buys directly from renewable generators or generates its own supply. TECs names Good Energy and Ecotricity as two such companies. The more people who use such providers, the greater the demand for renewable energy as part of the energy mix of the grid. 

The 100% ‘green’ tariffs offered by other energy companies will not help so much in this regard as they are achieved by a form of offsetting using tradable certificates called REGOs (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin). Despite the name, they will not be adding new renewable generation to the grid, simply offsetting against existing renewable generation.  This will not reduce the carbon intensity of the grid. The TECs paper explains this in more detail.

Of course, the most reliable way to reduce emissions from electricity generation is to lower your usage. Use the carbon calculator to work out your carbon footprint then consider what changes you can make to reduce it. Generating your own renewable energy also helps, as does buying from Good Energy or Ecotricity. Sadly, timing your energy consumption to coincide with low carbon intensity periods via an app will not help and could even increase carbon emissions.

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