Renewable Energy Not Catching on in Green Berlin | Business| Economy and finance news from a German perspective | DW | 19.11.2006
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Renewable Energy Not Catching on in Green Berlin

Berlin's main energy supplier offers renewable energy for just a few extra euros a year. So why isn't everybody jumping at the chance to save the planet?

A upward view of a power line and the cloudy sky behind it

Would you pay two cents extra per day for zero-emissions electricity?

When it comes to choosing between saving the planet and saving money, it's a "no-brainer" for most. The purse comes first.

But what if it were possible to substantially reduce carbon emissions for just two cents a day by using zero-emissions electricity?

Vattenfall, Berlin's main energy supplier, has started offering a product called "Ökopur," electricity produced by 100 percent renewable energy. All it takes is a quick phone call to Vattenfall to switch from their normal, fossil-fuel based energy product to Ökopur.

Saving the environment is too abstract for some

A women reads a book by candlelight in her living room during a power outage

Many don't think much about where their electricity comes from -- until it stops working

But of the 1.7 million households Vattenfall supplies, only 9,300 have done so. The company's spokesperson, Barbara Meifert, has her own theory on why so few Berliners have signed up.

"Saving the environment is a very abstract issue for many people," said Meifert, adding that complacency is also a major factor. "When it comes to electricity it is even more abstract. People just stick to what they have. They don't think about energy as long as the electricity supply works."

Only slight price difference

Most of the customers at the Vattenfall service center were there to find ways to reduce their energy bill, not their carbon footprint, and were unfamiliar with Ökopur.

"My family and I just signed up for the product that was the cheapest," said one customer. "It doesn't matter how the energy is produced. We have to watch our spending. Our choice was simply a matter of money."

Four labeled trash cans in a Berlin subway station

Most Germans separate their trash, even if they don't use renewable energy

Ökopur is a bit more expensive than the standard energy supply -- but only about seven euros more per year for the average household, Meifert said.

Berliners are generally environmentally conscientious. They separate and recycle their garbage, keep the thermostat low, look for energy-efficient appliances, and ride their bikes to work.

Many are even willing to pay more if it means protecting the environment. So why aren't more of them lining up for this easy way to cut CO2 emissions?

"When people separate their trash they see the effect right in front of their eyes," Meifert said. "If they choose an alternative energy they don't see anything -- and that is the difference for many people."

Is green electricity really green?

A side view of the earth and the moon from space

Complacency hinders many potential renewable energy users

Another factor is trust.

It's easier to taste and see that the organic banana you've bought really is organic. But how do you know that your electricity really is organic?

Meifert agreed that customers are often skeptical about the source of so-called renewable energy, but said that her company's product is certified by an independent association called Energy Vision.

"They make sure that we really sell 100 percent renewable energy," she said.

Germany losing out on benefits

Ökopur was introduced to promote the overall growth of Germany's renewable energy industry, which many believe has the potential to develop into a very lucrative market for the country.

Ironically, according to German law all renewable energy produced in Germany must be bought by the major energy companies.

Ökopur is therefore obliged to obtain its renewable energy supply from sources that are otherwise not guaranteed a buyer -- that is, from foreign producers. Almost 90 percent of Ökopur's energy is currently supplied by hydro-power from Switzerland.

As a result, Ökopur supports the expansion of green energy industries in other European countries, but not in Germany itself.

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