Green energy: A complete guide to how it all works
By Matt Mostyn Wednesday 29 July 2020
“It’s not easy being green,” as Kermit once sang, rather forlornly. And while it’s getting easier to live more sustainably, it’s not always so straightforward understanding what ‘green’ actually means.
From green energy to clean energy to renewable energy, there seems to be an array of confusing and sometimes overlapping terms to describe sustainable energy.
Renewable electricity is the green energy source we're focusing on in this guide. We’ll explain what it is, how it differs from the rest, and explore the options, benefits, products, and plans that are here to help you do your bit for our planet. Because, as the cleaner, greener way to power our homes, renewables have a big part to play in building the sustainable energy system of the future.
The benefits of green energy
As the name suggests, green energy comes from nature – and it uses natural resources like sunlight, wind, and water to produce power and reduce the negative impact on our planet.
Essentially, green energy is the opposite of all those dirty fossil fuels we hear so much about – coal, oil, and gas. Taking hundreds of millions of years to form, these energy sources can never be replaced, so burning them is completely unsustainable. Plus, they release carbon emissions when they’re burned, making the climate crisis even worse.
Green energy, on the other hand, produces power from nature to lessen the impact of our daily habits on the planet. Because after all, creating a smaller carbon footprint is a big step in the right direction towards building a sustainable energy system we can all be proud of, right?
The difference between green energy and renewable energy
Essentially, green energy and renewable energy are the same thing. There’s some debate about whether renewable energy that comes from sources such as large hydroelectric dams can be 100% ‘green’, as there are some environmental trade-offs. But broadly speaking, renewable energy, just like green energy, comes from a natural resource that’s constantly replenishing.
Renewable energy has numerous sources, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydropower, wave, and tidal power. The key thing to remember is that energy described as ‘green energy’ indicates that it’s generated from renewable sources.
The best thing about using these sources is that they’re infinitely cleaner and healthier. Green energy won’t ever run out. It will be there for us for generations to come – and the more we use it, the more we can shrink our carbon footprint and fight the climate crisis. For us, the benefits couldn’t be clearer!
How green energy is made
Here’s a quick rundown of the main sources of green energy and how they work:
- Solar power: Solar panels use something called the photovoltaic effect to switch solar energy into electricity.
- Wind power: Wind turbines harness the power of the wind, converting its energy into electricity.
- Hydroelectric power: Hydroelectric power uses a turbine – usually built into a dam – to convert energy from large rivers or streams.
- Wave power: Wave power captures the energy of waves on rivers, lakes, and canals to generate power.
- Tidal power: This form of hydropower converts the energy from tides (caused by the moon’s gravitational pull) into useful forms of power – mainly electricity.
- Biofuel: Biofuel uses natural organic material – things like wood pellets, grass clippings, and even dung – to generate energy.
- Geothermal power: Geothermal energy harnesses the heat created deep within the earth’s core to generate heat or electricity.
What about nuclear power? How green is nuclear energy?
Surprisingly, nuclear power has one of the smallest carbon footprints of any energy source. But we don’t have it in our fuel mix, because nuclear power uses uranium, of which there’s only a limited supply. There’s also the cost and impact of disposing of nuclear waste or dismantling obsolete power plants. For these reasons, nuclear isn’t considered to be ‘green’ energy.
Green energy at OVO
Green energy plans
All our plans come with 100% renewable electricity1 as standard. And if you want to do even more for the planet, why not try OVO Beyond.
This green upgrade cuts carbon with renewable energy, reduces energy waste and restores nature by planting trees and protecting rainforests.
Smart technologies to make your home greener
Here at OVO, we use a range of cutting-edge technologies to help you embrace a greener lifestyle. Meet some of the key players:
A smart meter is a clever little gizmo designed to help track your energy use and spend. What’s its main job? To encourage you to make small changes so you waste less energy, reduce your bills, and cut your carbon emissions. Think of it as your home’s private detective, working around the clock to discover when and where you’re spending on energy, and showing you how to make savings.
Smart storage heaters
Our smart storage heaters use advanced technology to deliver greater efficiency, comfort, and control. Many also feature a thermostat and a timer or programmer, so you can set heat to be released whenever it suits you. And some models even allow you to set the programmer and monitor heating remotely via a mobile app.
Air source heat pumps
Air source heat pumps are an electrically-driven, low-carbon alternative to heat your home. They absorb heat from the outside air to heat your home and hot water, producing fewer carbon emissions than most boiler systems. Highly efficient, and wasting little energy, they can make a big difference to your carbon footprint.
The Zero Carbon Heating Trial
OVO has been chosen by the government to run the UK’s largest zero-carbon heating trial. We’ll be replacing the gas heating systems in 250 homes with brand new heat-pump driven systems worth up to £15,000 – all for free. By doing so, we’re hoping to prove that low-carbon heating is cleaner, more cost-effective and ready to transform the way we heat our homes.
And there’s more...
On top of all that, we’re doing all kinds of things to get us where we need to be. Think grid-balancing software, renewable energy storage technologies, and clever chargers that turn electric vehicles into power stations. It’s part of our drive to eventually power the UK by renewables alone, and secure a better future for our planet and everyone on it.
How green energy is distributed
It’s worth knowing that even if you have a 100% green energy plan, it doesn’t necessarily mean that only renewable electricity will be directly supplied to your home. It’s actually technically impossible for renewable power to be directed to your home unless you have a direct line to a generator (for example via solar panels on your roof).
Both renewable and non-renewable power all get mixed up together on the National Grid. That means suppliers can’t trace where the electricity you actually get has come from.
Luckily, a UK energy industry certificate (called a Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin) shows how much renewable electricity a supplier has bought, versus how much it’s sold to customers.
It means that while no supplier can guarantee that your home will receive the actual renewable electricity bought for you, you’ll know that for every unit you use, we’ve bought the same amount of the good stuff!
Other green commitments
There are a host of other related green technologies and initiatives that suppliers might (or might not) choose to embrace. Think things like green or carbon-neutral gas, carbon offsetting, carbon tracking devices and vehicle-to-grid technologies.
It’s worth checking to see what your supplier is offering, as their choice of initiatives can make a big difference in the long-term delivery of a greener, more sustainable energy system.
Here at OVO, we’ve developed a range of technologies to support the transition to renewable energy – including:
- Carbon Tracker – a free-to-use online tool to help you understand your carbon emissions and learn how to start reducing them. Our Carbon Tracker reveals your carbon impact, sets targets, and gives personalised suggestions to support you as you lighten your footprint.
- Kaluza – an intelligent energy platform that optimises car charging, home heating, and energy storage, so that devices use energy when it’s less carbon intensive and costly to do so.
- Vehicle-to-grid charging – a revolutionary wall-mounted domestic vehicle-to-grid (V2G) charger that enables energy stored in electric vehicles to be fed back into the national electricity network, to supply energy at times of peak demand. This helps the UK on our journey to zero carbon.
- Energy Spotlights – this clever tool digests your household energy use and recommends energy saving, bill shrinking actions, emailed to you every month.
Is green energy worth it?
In 2020, the UK broke a record by going coal-free for more than two months – making it the longest period since the Industrial Revolution that the country has used fossil fuel-free electricity. In fact, over the last decade, the proportion of our energy needs supplied by coal has fallen 93%!
Between July and September of 2019, renewable fuel sources accounted for 40% of the UK’s electricity, beating fossil fuels’ market share for the first time. With electricity from renewables and nuclear overtaking gas and coal-fired power, it’s an important milestone in UK energy production.
Clearly, great progress is being made. With more and more of us understanding that our lifestyles can have a negative impact on our planet, green energy is becoming more and more competitive.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to cost extra to go green! Here at OVO we offer 100% renewable electricity as standard on all our plans. We also plant a tree on behalf of every member, for every year they’re with us.
Your decision to go green can help lead the way. The need to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the biggest, most pressing challenge facing humankind. The decisions we all make individually will contribute to the whole – helping us to transition to a zero-carbon energy system, and contributing to a more sustainable future for everyone. And that’s a happy tune that even Kermit could sing along to.
Ready to begin your journey to zero carbon? Check out Better Smart – our lowest-rate energy plan, powered by one of our next-generation smart meters.
1 100% of your electricity comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar and hydro. The renewable electricity we sell is backed by renewable certificates (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origin certificates (REGOs)). See here for details on REGO certificates and how these work.