Explainer: How to get cheap, green energy through your energy provider, even if you’re renting!

Poppy Johnston

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Want to run your home off clean, green energy but rooftop solar isn’t an option? You, like millions of other renters, apartment dwellers and homeowners, could benefit from a call to your energy retailer.

Most energy retailers offer greener options for households without sunny roofspace on hand. Traditionally these plans have been too expensive to pose a real alternative for consumers, but now there are more and more ways to get squeaky clean energy without paying an extra dime.

Offsite renewable energy (GreenPower)

You can buy renewable energy that’s located elsewhere. Called GreenPower, it works by the energy retailer committing to source the equivalent amount of energy you use from certified renewable sources, such as wind and solar.

The beauty of GreenPower is you are sending a signal to the energy market that you want clean energy, as more renewables will need to be added to the grid to cover your use.  This means cleaner energy for everybody, and more green jobs in renewables.

Most providers will offer GreenPower plans at various rates: 25 per cent renewables, 50 per cent and so on. A 100 per cent plan will get your home running completely off renewables but will be the priciest option.

To make the switch, it’s usually a simple matter of calling up your retailer. If you shop around and employ your negotiating skills, you may even get GreenPower cheaper or at the same rate as your current energy plan. Free energy comparison websites that allow you to compare GreenPower plans in each state are a good place to start.

Carbon offsetting energy plans

Retailers may also spruik some kind of carbon neutral or net zero energy option. These plans rely on carbon offsets to cancel out the emissions generated to produce the energy you use in your home.

Carbon offsets see money investing into projects that reduce or store carbon, such as planting trees. However, not all offsets are created equal: keep an eye out for the Climate Active label, which is the Australian government’s carbon neutral certification program and is a sign that the offsets are trustworthy.

These plans also tend to cost extra to cover the costs of the offsets. But some energy companies have decided to absorb these additional costs and offer it to their customers at no extra charge. So be sure to shop around!

A downside of these plans is that they don’t necessarily encourage new renewables projects, and, as mentioned earlier, they rely on offsets, which can vary in reliability and quality.

Some emerging ways to clean up your energy use on the cheap

Something else to keep an eye on, if you are locked out of the rooftop solar market, is the incoming wave of energy plans and offerings geared at matching your energy use to the time that renewables are generating: when the sun is shining and the wind is blowing, as people like to say.

The point of these next generation energy offerings is to allow you to make the most of abundant, cheap clean energy when it’s available, just like someone with a rooftop solar system can when the sun is blazing in the middle of the day. The catch is that you will need to change your energy habits accordingly.

One interesting option offered by interesting newcomers is allowing people to access the wholesale market. This basically means people can buy direct from the generator so that they can make the most of the cheap solar energy that floods the grid in the middle of the day. People can change their energy habits – turning on their energy hungry appliances and so on – and save.

The downside is that these folks are also exposed to higher energy prices when energy is scarce, such as when everyone returns home in the evening to watch TV and cook their dinner, and solar panels stop generating. Even with caps to protect energy users from the worst of these fluctuations, these plans aren’t for the faint hearted.

If you’ve got an electric vehicle, these are also getting the same treatment, with energy retailers looking to make the most of your car’s battery when it’s not in use. You will certainly get compensated for letting the grid use some of your energy storage.

Digging deeper

Want to be sure you are with the greenest energy retailer possible? Mark Byrne, the energy market advocate at Total Environment Centre, knows a thing or two about green energy plans as one of the brains behind the Green Electricity Guides. Last updated in 2018, this guide offered the only independent ranking of the environmental performance of all retailers selling electricity to Australian households.

He says the first thing to consider is whether or not a retailer is also a generator or not. If the provider is both retailer and generator, you can look at its generation fleet to see exactly the percentages of renewables versus coal and gas.

The emissions intensity of the energy provided by retailers without generation capacity is harder to pin down: they are buying energy from what’s known as the “spot market”, which matches power supply and demand instantaneously.

This means it can be hard to know where the energy is coming from: renewables, fossil fuels, or a mix of both. Mark says retailers may have contracts to buy renewable energy, such as power purchase agreements, which may provide clues about the carbon emissions in the energy they sell you.

In an ideal world, Mark would like retailers to be transparent about the emissions intensity of the energy they are offering consumers. Unfortunately, energy companies don’t tend to give this information out. Even retailers which own renewable energy assets are likely to buy energy from coal and gas plants at times when they can’t generate the green stuff.

Something else to watch out for, Mark says, is a guarantee that energy providers aren’t investing in anything you deem seriously undesirable, such as coal seam gas. You could also check their website to clarify their public positions on the early retirement of coal fired power stations and their support for strong national decarbonisation targets.

Don’t give up on rooftop solar just yet


You may not have to give up on rooftop solar. If you’re a renter, there are ways to convince your landlord to install solar, especially in places with government rebate schemes for landlords.

Another avenue is joining a local community energy project, which usually involve a group co-owning a renewable energy system and sharing its energy.