Truly Green Electricity? What you buy is not what you get

Published in Nov 24, 2020

Buying green power does not equal green consumption

Increasingly environmentally aware consumers try to make a difference by buying Energy Attribute Certificates (EACs), in the EU these certificates are usually Guarantees of Origin (GOs) and they come in many different forms. Unlike ‘Organic’, ‘Fairtrade’, and ‘Sustainably Sourced’, no GOs guarantees that green electricity has been delivered to you through an uncorrupted supply chain.

Certificates and green energy tariffs merely give the illusion that electricity can be sent straight to the lucky buyer. In reality, users will consume whatever electricity happens to be available in their local grid at their time of use. Depending on the location and time of day the amount of green energy available will vary; for example, there may be lots of solar generation at midday but mostly gas generation when it’s dark.

Current procurement mechanisms fail to drive market innovation

Why does all this matter? Because businesses spend over £49 billion annually on renewable procurement. Last year, through PPAs alone, corporations contracted more energy than the country of France consumes annually. Without traceability, that value is diluted.

Unconscientious or ill-informed businesses are able to buy the cheapest certificates available with no consideration of their impact on the grid or the climate. You can even buy a certificate from a region totally disconnected from your electricity grid, from the past, with no guarantee that power was used or stored. And then you can claim to be 100% renewable, even if most of your local energy is supplied by coal generators!

Environmentally aware consumers are unable to make informed decisions when they lack information about the real physics of the electricity grid and the impact of their decision to consume energy at a given time. Researchers at Stanford University found that the currently available data (yearly estimates based on regional averages) overestimate emissions reductions from buying solar by as much as 50%.

Without live electricity tracing, grid operators and electricity generators are not driven to match the supply of renewable energy with local, real-time consumer demand. This is a problem in California where the term ‘duck curve’ was coined to describe the challenge of balancing a grid faced with a timing mismatch between peak solar generation -midday – and peak electricity demand – after sunset. Some certificates help fund renewable plants. But funding 12 more solar farms will not help power a factory when it needs electricity at night.

In the UK, 90 Metric Tonnes of CO2 is produced by electricity generation every year. Most of this is from gas generation. These are often ‘marginal emissions generators’: generators that come online when demand exceeds renewable energy generation.

What is the solution?

A sustainable grid needs a mix of renewable generation and energy storage to maximise the matchup between demand and supply. It needs sustainable consumption practices by end users that take into account the impact of their energy choices.

This requires accurate data tracing of electricity through space (modelling the regional carbon intensity of power) and time (the hourly variation in renewable production). Making energy decisions based on the currently available yearly estimates of emissions impacts “is like trying to set a daily budget with only a single year-end bank statement.”

50 years ago we lacked the motivation and the technology to solve this problem. Now energy flow modelling, big data, and AI make 24/7 energy tracing a reasonable goal.

24-7 renewable matching

Enter Google. After becoming the first company to purchase 100% renewable power, Google have embarked upon the “much greater, longer-term challenge: sourcing carbon-free energy for our operations on a 24x7 basis”. Vattenfall and Microsoft too are piloting 24/7 matching at their headquarters in Sweden.

This approach aims to match the generation time of the renewable energy purchased with the consumption time of the buying. This helps drive the market towards the real time matching of renewable electricity production with the real energy needs of consumers.

24-7 ‘hyperlocal’ matching

At Advanced Infrastructure, we are the only company offering a solution to the problem of tracing electricity through time and space.

Advanced Infrastructure has built the world’s first big data enabled platform that uses the real physics of the electricity grid to trace power. With this approach we have been able to map the energy flows of the entire UK electricity network, with data that updates in real time. A forthcoming machine learning upgrade will allow prediction of future energy flows, enabling better low carbon planning by generators, suppliers, and consumers.

A sustainable future

24-7, hyperlocal electricity data enables sustainable, climate conscious action. It enables users to actively monitor the climate impact of the energy consumption and make responsible decisions based on the carbon intensity of their local grid. It contributes to better grid planning and renewable generation projects that are targeted to local energy demand.

It is time the energy system moved from a ‘green on paper’ approach to a transparent and traceable system. A system that can claim to be truly green.