Ethical Energy Suppliers

We investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 20 electricity and gas suppliers.

We look at the fuels that generate a supplier's electricity, green tariffs, renewable generation, biogas and 'vegan' energy, energy prices, UK renewables targets and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying an electricity or gas tariff:

  • Is the company building new sources of green energy? Look for a renewable energy company that is building renewable capacity.

  • Does it have power purchase agreements with renewable generators? These give generators security.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying an electricity or gas tariff: 

  • Is the company involved in destructive projects? Some of the renewable energy providers in this guide are involved in mega-projects around the world that are destroying the environment and violating indigenous rights.

  • Is it using fossil fuel powered energy? Many tariffs still rely on fossil-fuel powered electricity – undermining the UK’s need to transition to renewables.

  • Are they making meaningless environmental claims? Many ‘renewable’ tariffs are based on meaningless environmental claims. Choose a company instead that is actually building new sources of green energy.

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

UK renewable energy targets

The UK is taking steps in the right direction on electricity: about 37% of UK electricity now comes from renewable energy, with onshore and offshore wind generation rising by 7% and 20% respectively since 2018.

But this looks better than it is, because we don’t just need to decarbonise 100% of our electricity. If we’re going to start using electricity for heating and transport, we need to decarbonise 200% of it.

During 2019, UK grid electricity came from the following sources:

pie chart: UK electricity fuel mix

We consumers need to take the lead 

People have been producing proposals as to how to decarbonise for many years now. The main official body that advises the government, the Climate Change Committee (CCC), produced a report in 2019 that calculated that it was possible to do it at a “manageable” cost of 1-2% of GDP each year.

However we are missing nearly all our targets, and it really doesn’t look like a serious attempt is being made to rectify that. Given what we have committed to do, the measures in place to do it are profoundly inadequate.

Consumers thus need to take more of the lead. Much electricity decarbonisation needs to be done at the national level – offshore wind is the UK’s really big renewable resource - but you can help by getting solar PV panels, and to an extent supporting companies that are doing more to help build renewables. 

 

Green and renewable energy suppliers 

The UK energy market has changed a lot in the last few years. Many of the small energy companies have either gone bust or been bought out by larger, less ethical ones.

This includes two of our previous Best Buys. Robin Hood was sold to British Gas, and Bristol Energy was sold to Together Energy, resulting in falling scores and the loss of their best-buy status.

Meanwhile, the number of tariffs claiming renewable electricity credentials has boomed, increasing from 9% to over 50% in just four years. The largest energy companies in the UK now offer green tariffs for domestic and/or small business customers. Many smaller companies specialising in ‘green’ energy have entered the market and seen huge growth in recent years. Several of the large companies have also sold off their fossil fuel assets or are investing in renewable energy.

Yet, the majority of ‘renewable energy’ tariffs make flimsy claims, with only a handful actually contributing to the energy transition in the UK. The worst of the bunch, Shell Energy, offers 100% renewable energy while continuing to funnel 90% of its capital into fossil fuels. Shell and RWE (15% owner of E.ON) are both being sued by those on the frontline of climate breakdown.

The energy mix of the different energy providers

In our ratings scoretable, companies lost half a mark under Climate Change if their fuel mix was over 5% from coal, or less than the national average from renewables (37%).

Companies got a positive Product Sustainability mark where we considered they were making a meaningful contribution to renewable energy development, and were not involved in fossil fuels. We considered a “meaningful contribution” to be either owning or building their own renewables, or sourcing 100% of their renewable electricity through ‘power purchase agreements’ (PPAs).

Other companies claiming to offer ‘renewable’ tariffs but just purchasing energy via REGOs (see more on REGOs below) lost half a mark under Climate Change for meaningless environmental claims.

The table below shows the fuel mix of different energy suppliers, and the steps they are taking to build renewable capacity.

table: green energy suppliers

Carbon management and reporting

Companies automatically received a worst rating if they owned fossil fuel-fired power stations and had no published commitment not to build any new ones (we didn't find such a commitment from any of the companies that own fossil fuel-fired power stations).

Companies received a best rating if their entire model is geared towards energy transition - if they are primarily supporting new sources of green energy.

For all other companies, we rated them as usual on their carbon management and reporting.

 

Lobbying against climate action

While an increasing number of companies are putting on a public show of supporting renewables, some also continue to be involved in lobbying against climate action in private.

EDF and Shell have both been criticised for their membership of industry lobby groups that are known to have opposed robust climate measures. Shell was found to be a member of eight trade organisations opposing action just in Australia and the USA. Both companies lost a full mark under Political Activities.

 

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Understanding green energy tariffs 

We have written before about the issues with ‘green tariffs’, because they operate on so many levels of detachment from physical reality.

Not only does everyone get the same physical electricity from the same grid, but the way the regulatory system is set up means that we all pay very similar renewable subsidies through our bills, whatever tariff we are on.

This makes it hard to trace a causal line between buying a green tariff, even from a specific company, and any more money going to building renewables.

We think that there are companies that are doing a bit more, which are worth supporting, as detailed below, but we suggest that it isn’t really worth thinking in terms of individual tariffs. Ultimately, which tariff you are on is just a matter of someone having shuffled some numbers around on a computer screen.

The problem with REGOs

One confusing aspect of the system is REGOs. Each bit of renewable electricity created generates a certificate called a REGO, which can then be sold separately from it.

Legally, in order to call its electricity ‘100% renewable’, a company just has to buy an equivalent amount of REGOs. It doesn’t have to produce, or even buy, any renewable electricity itself.

The idea behind REGOs is that selling them should provide a small subsidy to renewable developers, although renewables get other larger subsidies as well.

However, about 37% of UK electricity now comes from renewables. This means that there is a large pool of REGOs – far more than anyone wants, and even though the big companies have started doing green tariffs again, prices are still very low, at around 30p-50p per certificate. This equates to only around 1% of the wholesale cost of electricity, so the subsidy they supply is extremely minimal.

This isn’t about to change either - domestic customers only account for about 1/3 of the electricity market, so even if 100% of domestic customers were on green tariffs, it would still account for less than proportion of the grid that is powered by renewables.

We therefore don’t consider that buying REGOs is a meaningful way to support renewable energy development.

All tariffs burn fossil fuels at the same rate

Whatever company you buy from, the most important thing to be aware of is that the electricity you use still has the same carbon footprint, currently 0.26 kg CO2e per kWh.

If you are on a green tariff and you turn your kettle on, some renewable electricity will be taken (on paper) from the electricity account of someone on a standard tariff and transferred to yours.

Then a gas-fired power station will be turned up in order to replace it. In other words, your turning your kettle on causes a gas-fired power station to be turned up to supply it, just the same amount as when anyone else does it.

The electricity system is ultimately a shared thing. Most of the decisions about it are being made at the governmental level, and the cost of decarbonising it is being shared between everyone in the country.

So while it is good to buy from one of the companies that is making more of an effort to help, the key things are to keep minimising your energy use, and to keep pushing for political action.

Green energy tariffs and Carbon offsetting

Many ‘green’ tariffs offer tree planting as part of your package, while others claim to provide ‘carbon neutral gas’ through offsetting emissions. However, many forms of offsetting – including planting trees – are deeply controversial and often ineffective.

Trees do absorb carbon slowly while growing. However, once at maximum size they only sit and hold it while the forest remains there. If the land is ever cleared the carbon is released back into the atmosphere.

Forestry offsetting projects have also been linked to human rights abuses.

People have been evicted to make way for tree planting, violating indigenous rights.

In 2019, Shell was criticised for the carbon offsetting scheme it used as part of its emissions reduction plan. Six NGOs, including Justiça Ambiental in Mozambique and Amigos da Terra África do Sul, signed an open letter stating: “solving the climate crisis requires deep, urgent and immediate emissions cuts, which means that dirty and harmful energy must be held at source and cannot simply be ‘compensated’ [for] in other parts of the world.”

In fact, investing in renewables is one of a few forms of ‘offset’ that works. Energy companies would do much more for the planet if they focused on this, rather than planting trees.

If you do decide to look at a company that claims to have carbon-neutral gas or to offset some of your non-renewable energy, we’d advise checking carefully what form of offsetting they use.

We discuss carbon offsetting in more detail here.

 

Instead of green tariffs: making a meaningful difference

There are two things that companies can do which we do consider makes a meaningful difference – building renewables themselves or buying renewable electricity through ‘power purchase agreements’ (PPAs), which give generators security.

If companies are selling electricity as ‘green’ we think that they should be either building renewables, with a commitment to not build any further fossil-fuelled plant, or they should be buying sufficient renewable electricity through purchasing PPAs to cover 100% of customers’ electricity use.

We awarded product sustainability marks to the companies that did this. Those that passed were Ecotricity, Good Energy and Green Energy UK

Ofgem appears to be in agreement with us. It has issued Ecotricity, Good Energy and Green Energy UK with a permanent exemption to the bill price cap, on the basis that “by consumers being on the tariff, support is given to renewables to an extent that is materially greater than that which is brought about as result of subsidies, obligations or other mandatory mechanisms.”

 

Switching Tariffs

If you want to switch to a more ethical energy supplier, Citizens Advice has this step-by-step guide to switching energy suppliers.

 

Vegan energy suppliers?

Ecotricity’s electricity and gas is certified by the Vegan Society. It says that while less than 1% of the energy used in the UK is from animal waste, many companies do use some, including British Gas, Npower, EDF, SSE, Good Energy, Green Energy UK and Bulb.

While a small amount of animal waste is just burned directly in power stations, most of what we are talking about is manure being turned into biogas, using a process called ‘anaerobic digestion’.

Because the animal industry gets paid for the waste, most energy consumption will inevitably be supporting it. However, the issue is complicated by the fact that anaerobic digestion has quite a lot of benefits.

Biogas, manure and methane

An average UK dairy cow produces about 52 kg of manure each day, the equivalent of a teenage boy in weight, and there are almost two million of them in the UK. And that is just dairy cows.

Disposing of all of this is difficult. It can cause pollution if it gets into waterways, and so there are legal regulations on what is done with it. As a result, the majority of farmers recycle it to use as fertiliser, either on their own fields or by selling it to other farmers. In the last national survey, 63% of UK farmers said that they used some on their fields.

Anaerobic digestion is a way of producing fuel from this manure, and also, by capturing and burning the methane it gives off, reducing livestock’s greenhouse gas emissions. One study of dairy cows found that anaerobic digestion reduced methane emissions from manure storage by 71%, which reduced the whole farm greenhouse gas emissions by 20%.

After the biogas is removed, the nutrients are retained in the ‘digestate’ left behind, so they can still be used as fertiliser.

Making biogas from dedicated crops as Ecotricity does, has come under a lot of fire due to concerns about the amount of land that it takes up. It was thus on environmental grounds that the government actively promoted the use of waste.

It is never easy to know when to let the best be the enemy of the good. If you want to be sure that no animal products went into producing your electricity or gas, you should go with Ecotricity.

However, you may also decide that, while the animal industry exists, it is better that the waste be dealt with well rather than badly.

How green is nuclear energy?

Nuclear energy does not emit greenhouse gases during power generation. Yet, it remains controversial. Nuclear power relies on uranium, a non-renewable fuel source obtained from mining. It produces radioactive waste, which must be stored carefully underground.

There are already 5,600 canisters of radioactive waste stored in the UK. It is unclear what the environmental impacts of storing radioactive waste will be in the future.

Andrew Blowers, author of The Legacy of Nuclear Power and a former member of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, set up to advise the British government on how and where to store nuclear waste, said:

“There is no reliable method to warn future generations about the existence of nuclear waste dumps. The nuclear legacy stretches into the far future; it poses a risk to environments and human health for periods which extend well beyond our comprehension.”

There are also worries about the connection to nuclear weapons. If lots more countries are going to get nuclear technology in order to decarbonise, might that lead to nuclear weapons proliferation?

In recent years, support for nuclear power has declined significantly around the world. The lower cost of renewables, and a better understanding of how abundant renewables supply is, has meant that the downsides to nuclear are now more easily avoided.

Heating your home
 

Cutting down on heating: How and why you should do it

Heating accounts for about a third of UK territorial greenhouse emissions (“territorial” means that it excludes imported goods). Our housing is old, leaky, and hopelessly dependent on fossil fuels – around 85% of UK homes use gas boilers.

Pretty much everyone agrees that the first priority has to be insulation. The CCC thinks that cutting heating demand by a quarter is realistic. This includes insulation in millions of lofts, cavity walls and solid walls.

There are government schemes to help pay for insulation. And if you pay about £50, you can get an energy performance assessor to identify your options.

Another way you can try to reduce your heating demand is by using smart heating controls, which can automatically adjust heating – sometimes room by room – from a phone or computer.

Heating your home with ethical electricity and gas

Once we’ve reduced heat demand as much as we can, we then need to supply the rest.

Most scenarios envisage electric heat pumps being the backbone of a decarbonised UK heating system because they are around three times more efficient than a standard electric heater. They will cut your emissions immediately, by a significant amount, but they aren’t cheap, although you can get help with the cost.

As for direct electric heating – it can play a small role, although if everyone used it then it would require an implausible amount of electricity. While it has traditionally been regarded as much worse for the climate than gas, the grid has now decarbonised enough that high-heat retention storage heaters, which you can heat up at night when the grid is least carbon intensive, are starting to get more ambiguous. But they won’t reduce your emissions yet.

We decided to stop covering gas boilers on our website – the boilers last for about 15 years, so buying one now will probably lock you into gas heating for a while.

We do really need to be getting off gas. The government appears to agree, as they are to be banned in new build homes from 2023 (just brought forward from 2025). However, if you do want to get a gas boiler, most of the companies that make them can be found in our guide to heat pumps.

Is bio-energy green energy?

Bioenergy is any fuel from plant or animal matter, including wood, alcohol, and biogas. We’re currently using some for heating – some people run biomass boilers, and some companies inject biogas into the gas grid.

Unfortunately, bioenergy has a huge problem, which is the amount of land that growing it takes up. This has led to a lot of concern about whether it is being produced sustainably or whether it is encouraging people to clear virgin habitat.

It also leads to the macro-level issue – whatever we do, there is only ever going to be a very limited amount of biofuel available.

And absolutely everyone wants it. They want it because it is functionally identical to fossil fuel (fossil fuels are just biofuels that were made a very long time ago) and, as any heroin addict moving onto methadone knows, when you’re trying to kick an addiction, the easiest thing to wean yourself onto is the next nearest thing.

That is why, in the long term, bioenergy really needs to be allocated to the areas which need it the most – where there are no other options. The CCC, like nearly everyone else, concludes that using much bioenergy for heating “is not the long-term best use of finite bioenergy resources”. It calculates that biogas could sustainably provide about 5% of our heating needs. This includes biogas from waste.

As a result of these issues, we have decided to stop covering biomass boilers.

Green energy options for heating your home: solar thermal, hydrogen, district heating

Solar thermal is a good technology but is limited – it can only supply a proportion of your heating needs, so you’d need to combine it with something else. 

Another option is hydrogen, which could be pumped down the gas grid. Companies are starting to make ‘hydrogen-ready’ gas boilers, which could switch over to burning it. But unfortunately, there’s quite a bit more to it than that. The CCC puts it like this:

“When technical feasibility is demonstrated and decisions made, production (primarily from natural gas) will require a significant infrastructure programme to build dedicated new hydrogen transmission pipelines, hydrogen storage capacity (e.g. salt caverns), large volumes of CCS [carbon capture and storage] and hydrogen production capacity.”

It concludes that once you’ve factored in everything, hydrogen is unlikely to be cheaper for society than heat pumps. So it only uses it for a small number of homes in its scenario, in combination with a hybrid heat pump.

The only other option left is low-carbon heat networks, which can be heated by waste heat from industry or decarbonised power stations, or communal heat pumps. The CCC calculates that they could work for about five million homes.

In conclusion: switch to a green gas or electricity supplier, or look into heat pumps and solar energy

It isn’t easy to keep homes warm and light without burning that congealed sunlight that was just handily lying around in the form of coal and gas and oil. But as one recent report put it: “decarbonisation of heating for the UK’s existing housing stock is possible, and can be achieved with average net investment of less than £10,000 per home”.

This guide, our guide to solar PV, and our guide to heat pumps will help lead you through the options.

Energy prices and fuel poverty

Energy prices have risen considerably over the last two decades. One in ten households in England and Wales are now in fuel poverty, meaning that if they heat their homes adequately, they will be left below the poverty line.

In Scotland this rises to one in four. It makes the UK one of the worst countries for fuel poverty in all of Western Europe. Over thirty people in the UK die every day from living in a cold home.

Government action on energy prices

Since 2017, the government has introduced a series of energy price caps, limiting the amount that suppliers can charge for those on default or standard variable tariffs or prepayment meters. However, much more needs to be done.

One of the key government measures to tackle high consumer energy prices is the reduced VAT rate on domestic electricity and gas, at 5% rather than the normal 20%. But critics say the tax break essentially acts as an electricity subsidy, encouraging higher energy use, and since gas still makes up 41% of the grid, a lot of it is going to fossil fuels.”

Libby Peake, Head of resource policy at Green Alliance says that the tax break “maintains the high-carbon status quo and does little to help those in fuel poverty,” and argues that the government should instead ring-fence the VAT from gas sales, to be “redistributed to low income homes and used to install energy efficiency measures and low-carbon heating systems.”

Avoiding high energy prices

From a consumer perspective, switching energy providers frequently can save money. Providers often entice customers through cheap rates that usually last for one year, but then automatically switch them onto a higher tariff, once the initial contract is over.

Citizens Advice has a price comparison tool to check whether you could be getting cheaper energy.

Low-income pensioners or low income households also qualify for government support known as the Warm Home Discount, which is currently £140 off your bill each winter. The following suppliers are part of the scheme: British Gas, Bulb, Coop Energy, EDF Energy, Npower, Octopus, OVO, Scottish Power, Shell Energy, SSE, Utilita and Utility Warehouse. Ecotricity and Green Energy UK support it for the ‘core’ low-income pensioner group.

Energy prices and renewables

So why have renewables not yet driven consumer prices down?

Renewable generation is now cheaper than fossil fuel – with solar the cheapest means of generating electricity in history. However, renewables still only account for, on average, 37% of our grid makeup, and fossil fuel prices are expected to keep rising.

Unfortunately, “Whichever plant was required to meet the last megawatt of demand is the price-setting technology,” according to Tom Edwards, senior modeler for Cornwall Insight. While the UK grid still relies heavily on gas, it is often this that will set the price.

In the long run, turning to renewables instead could cut consumer prices. But in the meantime, the government needs to provide support for up-front transition costs, in a way that supports those on the lowest income.

Company behind the brand - Ripple

Ripple Energy is a really unique company. It allows consumers to invest in a new renewable project, becoming part of a consumer energy co-op. Once the project begins to operate, energy used by the investor will be backed by electricity generated, in proportion to their investment.

Their bill will be reduced accordingly (or negated if the investment was large enough). Any energy needed above the invested amount (or before the project is operational) is provided by Coop Energy (which, confusingly, is supplied by Octopus Energy). The company’s first project is a single 2.5 MW wind turbine, which is due to start operating in summer 2021.

Ripple would essentially receive a different Ethiscore depending on whether you invested enough to cover all or just a portion of your energy use. The score on our table (11.5) reflects the second situation, where a consumer is partly supplied by Ripple and partly supplied by Co-op Energy (and therefore by Octopus).

If you chose to invest enough to cover your entire energy use, and were therefore only supplied by Ripple, the Ethiscore would be 15.5 – the highest in the table.

The company estimates that this would cost £1,882 for two people in a two-bedroom house – but would save £3,267 in energy bills over the 25-year lifespan of the wind farm. Ripple takes an arrangement fee of 5% suggesting that the remaining 95% of your investment goes directly to the wind farm.
 

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

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