Ask Sindie: 'Saving the planet would have cost me £50 a year'

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I'm eager to do my bit for the environment and have considered using green electricity in my home.

I'm eager to do my bit for the environment and have considered using green electricity in my home.

Having already switched my main supplier to Powergen, I thought that, for close to the same price, I could opt for green energy instead. But after looking at price comparison websites, I found this option is quite a lot more expensive - nearly £50 a year more in one case.

There also seem to be different kinds of green power, making it hard to know exactly what you're getting for your money.

Surely getting green electricity isn't supposed to be this much of a headache?

LF, Birmingham

Switching power supplier to save money and buying green electricity are both good practices that lobbyists and consumer groups are keen for us to adopt. Unfortunately, the two don't always go together.

"Price is still the original motivator for switching - greenness comes in second," says Karen Darby of SimplySwitch, a company that helps consumers cut power bills by changing supplier.

"Green energy is simply more expensive to produce," Ms Darby says.

Industry estimates suggest that four out of 10 households in the UK have now switched supplier to save money on their bills. The financial rewards are obvious: you can typically expect to make annual savings of £100 or more, especially if you have never switched before.

But critics argue that the drive to encourage us to cut bills by switching supplier is in danger of scuppering efforts to persuade us to buy green electricity. Nor will it help government attempts to reduce the UK's carbon dioxide emissions by 60 per cent by the year 2050, a target agreed in the Kyoto treaty.

Awareness of the need for environmentally friendly energy supplies may be growing but clean output still makes up only 3 per cent of the UK's total electricity production.

Whether generated by wind, water or sun, green energy is pumped into the National Grid, where it joins all the other power generated by gas and coal. Customers wanting to buy green are then simply billed for the units they use by the appropriate green supplier.

But as you've found out, the laudable decision to help the environment is a relatively expensive option. However, much will depend on how much electricity you use, where you live, the tariff you're on, and whether you pay by direct debit, as well as on the individual supplier.

Many people are happy to pay more for the sake of the environment. In this case, Uswitch.com, a website that encourages consumers to switch energy supplier, says households should expect a price increase of between 50p and £1 a week.

To find a green supplier, first decide how green you want to be. There are no formal classifications, explains SimplySwitch's Ms Brady, but some electricity suppliers may be considered "light green", since they may not actually produce green energy themselves. Instead, part of your bill is channelled into a green fund, and the money used for research or to produce renewable energy in the future.

If you opt for the "mid-green" choice, your supplier will produce a small amount of green electricity but generate most of its supplies via nuclear or coal-fired power stations.

Finally, "dark green" power is generated by companies that focus purely on green energy.

But these are only general guidelines. If you're serious about going green, Friends of the Earth's exhaustive website (www. foe.co.uk) is a good place to start. It has a list of energy providers approved for environmentally conscious consumers. Strict criteria apply: the company must not own any traditional coal-fired stations and must generate or buy one green unit for every one its customers buy.

Among the suppliers FoE recommends are Ecotricity, a Gloucestershire-based power company that builds wind turbines, and Good Energy (formerly Unit-e).

But don't forget that larger utilities also offer green power. Npower's "juice" option costs the same as standard electricity. For every unit of "juice" you use, Npower will generate an equivalent amount from the North Hoyle wind farm, sited off the coast of North Wales.

If you need help from our consumer champion, write to Sindie at The Independent on Sunday, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS or email sindie@ independent.co.uk. We cannot return documents, give personal replies or guarantee to answer letters. We accept no legal responsibility for advice given.

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