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German consumers mull personal nuclear phase-out

As Japan struggles to contain its nuclear crisis, Germany’s renewable energy sector and green electricity providers are getting a boost from consumers intent on moving away from atomic power.

A power socket on a wall of grass

Many Germans are rethinking their choice of energy provider

The worrying news emerging from Japan's tsunami-stricken nuclear reactors has not only prompted the German government to rethink its policy on atomic energy; it also has individual Germans implementing their own private nuclear phase out.

Germany's leading online portal for energy tariff comparisons, Verivox, reported that the number of requests for information on green energy providers shot up to an unusually high 70 percent since the tsunami.

Lichtblick, Germany's largest independent supplier of green energy with over 500,000 customers, also confirmed a much higher level of interest. On Monday, the company registered four times more traffic on its website than is usually the case on a Monday.

"We also had three times more online requests for contracts to sign up for green energy, and that's just one channel by which we reach new customers," Lichtblick press spokesman Ralph Kampwirth told Deutsche Welle.

"If you talk to customers, many say they are shocked and disturbed by what is happening in Japan," he added.

High voltage electrical mast

Energy from renewable and traditional sources ends up on the same grid

Kampwirth said that while many Germans have long been interested in switching to green providers, complacency stops them from actually making the move. The tsunami and the resulting nuclear crisis in Japan have changed that.

"Every so often something happens, like the Japan crisis, which acts as a wake-up call, and people remember that they really do want to have green energy, not atomic energy," he said.

Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision on Tuesday to take seven of Germany's older nuclear reactors offline during a three-month moratorium on plans to extend the life of the nation's atomic power plants will likely serve to make that wake-up call reverberate more strongly.

Buyer beware

As with any significant purchase, however, it pays for consumers to do their research before signing a contract for green energy. Many are not clear about how the system actually works.

Customers with a green provider in Germany do not suddenly get exclusively clean energy coming out of their sockets at home. All providers feed energy into the same grid, which then supplies local households. As a result, everyone receives an energy mix, of which 18 percent currently comes from renewable sources.

Switching to a green provider is meant to contribute to the expansion of renewable energies, thus edging the industry away from traditional sources such as coal and nuclear power. Still, not all green energy is the same.

Wind turbines above a field of rapeseed

Not all 'green energy' providers actually invest in new renewable infrastructure projects

"What's decisive is whether a consumer's money is being used to invest in new plants that will generate clean energy," Dominik Seebach, an energy expert at Germany's Institute for Applied Ecology told Die Welt newspaper.

In other words, buying green energy is only a sensible move if it leads to investments that result in more kilowatt hours of energy being produced from clean sources. And that's not always the case, said Lichtblick's Kampwirth.

"Everybody claims to be doing green energy, but if a supplier is also investing in coal or nuclear, then it's self-defeating. It just means there is less incentive to build more renewable energy power plants," he said. "It's not just the product, it's the supplier that you should look out for."

Quality seals not all equal

When choosing a supplier, German consumers can look for guidance from quality seals that certify compliance with regulations regarding green energy. But pitfalls lurk here, as well, since there is no single standardized seal guaranteeing quality service.

Consumer protection groups recommend providers certified under the "ok power" and the "grüner strom" (green energy) seals. Companies bearing these emblems guarantee their customers that their money will be invested in the expansion of renewable energy sources.

Some 2.6 million German households are already registered with green energy providers - about 6 percent of the market. If the current spike in consumer interest in clean energy is anything to go by, that number could soon increase significantly.

Author: Deanne Corbett
Editor: Sam Edmonds

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