How clean is your power?

Public fuel mix disclosure is very poor in Australia, with the utilities not keen to let the public know where their power is coming from. But that could be about to change.

Funny how often the people who sell you stuff – cars, food, cigarettes – don’t want to tell you what’s in it or where it comes from – unless they are required to by regulation. Same applies to electricity – in Australia at least.

In the EU, electricity retailers have been required since 2005 to disclose the fuel mix of their sales. (We’re talking here about the financial market. There’s only one supply of electrons coming down the wire, although it varies according to where you live and the time of day.) They do this on their websites, and NGOs collate them on websites like www.electricityinfo.org for people who want to compare how much of retailers’ sales come from renewables or fossil fuels. 

In Australia, most retailers are loathed to provide this information. Those that do are usually the ones that want to tout their green credentials, but there is no independent verification. So when AGL calls itself “Australia’s leading integrated renewable energy company”, punters might be forgiven for thinking AGL – which last year bought Loy Yang  A, one of the biggest and dirtiest power stations in Australia – only sold renewables. Even though, on a volume basis, AGL sells more wind power than any other company, there’s more to their profile consumers might like to know.

This week the Total Environment Centre released a report it commissioned from the Institute for Sustainable Futures at UTS on the fuel mix disclosure of retailers in the NEM. We and other environment and consumer groups have been fielding an increasing number of calls from people and companies wanting to know who they should buy electricity from if, for instance, they want to boycott AGL and Origin because of their CSG investments. It’s the tip of the consumer power iceberg.

Our usual response is: ‘Well, it’s complicated; how much time have you got?’ It’s easy to identify the bad guys, but who are the good guys? Our fallback position is to recommend buying GreenPower, which is worthwhile if you buy the full 100 per cent to offset your dirty power purchases. But it only accounts for about 2 per cent of sales nationally, and we think it’s important to turn the spotlight onto the other 98 per cent.

So we asked the ISF to help us find out. The main finding of their stage 1 report is that the level of public fuel mix disclosure is very poor in Australia. Getting the data is made difficult by the fact that there are four sources of electricity sales – gentailer (vertical integration) arrangements, hedging contracts or power purchase agreements, the spot market and the futures market – and while each retailer must know what percentage of their sales comes from each source, and the fuel mix of the first two (the last two would be whatever is on sale at the time), there is no duty to disclose this information to the public. Most also don’t disclose what proportion of their sales are GreenPower offsets.

What they could tell us was the fuel mix of generation assets, including CSG; their PV feed-in tariff offerings; whether each retailer supports the RET and the carbon price; and their commitment to corporate sustainability reporting. So we know, for instance, that at the end of the 2011 financial year there were only four companies with 100 per cent of their generation assets in renewable energy (Momentum, Diamond, Infigen and TrustPower).

But this doesn’t mean this is what consumers would buy, as these companies could be selling part of their generation output and buying from other generators as well as from the spot market (in fact they would have to at times). And three of these four companies do not currently retail to consumers in the largest and third largest markets in Australia, NSW and Queensland.

The ISF report is the first salvo in what is likely to be a long campaign to bring about greater fuel mix and emissions intensity disclosure. The next step will be a voluntary survey of retailers, backed up by a push for regulators to mandate annual reporting.

TEC is not the only environment group working on this issue. Last month ACF released a report on the attitudes of retailers to the RET review.

Other campaigns urging consumers to switch from dirty to clean energy sources will surface shortly. But by the end of the year we are hoping there will be a coordinated approach that will bring about a revolution in public access to information that will empower electricity consumers and encourage behaviour change by retailers, in the tradition of the Green Electricity Watch website that TEC, ACF and WWF published from 2003-2007.

That led to a marked improvement in the quality of GreenPower products, and we are confident the same would happen for the broader electricity market.

Mark Byrne is energy market advocate at the Total Environment Centre.