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Vegan energy

Humans use animals for almost every area of our lives – including producing energy.

So how are animals used by the energy industry, is it right to use animals for our energy supply, and how could you ensure that your energy supplier is vegan?

How are animals used by the energy industry?

In 2017, SSE was accused of providing energy from a power plant burning dead salmon from Scottish fish farms. In 2022, an investigation by energy company Ecotricity, published by ITV News, found that dead cows, hunt dogs, partridges and foxes were being used to generate energy.

In fact, using animal products for producing energy is not uncommon in the UK. In most cases, the animal products used are manure or slurry.

There are two key processes for generating electricity that are connected to animal exploitation: biomass generation and anaerobic digestion. These processes can use everything from dead animals and slaughterhouse waste to manure and slurry from animal farms.

Energy company Ecotricity says, “Animals are exploited to produce about 1% of the UK’s energy, which goes to around 60% of homes.”

We’re not quite sure where they got that figure from. Looking at the statistics that the government has published on the topic, 1% of electricity (as opposed to energy, which would include gas) seems about right.

According to the UK government's figures, animal biomass accounts for around 0.5% of UK energy supply. Anaerobic digestion accounts for about 2.5%, including animals and plant matter.

Why are animals and animal products used in our energy supply?

Animals and their products – even their poo – store significant amounts of energy. In many countries, animal dung has long been dried and burned in homes directly as a fuel source.

When animal parts or waste like manure are used for the production of energy, they’re likely to be ‘by-products’ of the farming industry. In other words, they are animal parts or animal waste that would otherwise not be used.

Using animal products to generate energy can therefore be considered low carbon. For this reason some argue that it’s a useful step in our energy transition.

When we burn animal biomass, such as manure, or biogas produced from animal waste during anaerobic digestion, we release greenhouse gases – as with the burning of fossil fuels. However, unlike fossil fuels, animal waste will also release emissions if left to just decompose on its own. For example, slurry (liquid animal manure) releases large amounts of methane, a greenhouse gas that is around 30 times more potent than CO2.

It is therefore more efficient from a climate perspective to capture and use these animal wastes than allow them to vent to the atmosphere: you prevent the release of methane and make the most of the energy they can provide.

What is vegan energy?

Vegan energy is essentially ‘animal free’. It excludes all sources of energy that have used animals.

Luckily, there are lots of alternative sources of renewable energy, such as wind and solar, where use of animals isn’t a problem.

Biogas can also be produced using only organic plant matter (although this has potential environmental problems of its own).

Should we be using animals and animal products for fuel?

The answer to this question is a complex one, and will very much depend on your own personal ethics. 

Proponents of using animal waste for fuel say it is a crucial step to reducing emissions from the animal farming industry. Animal farming accounts for about 56% of the emissions coming from our food. Of this, a tenth is directly from storing and processing manure. Using this animal waste to produce energy is therefore one of the most significant steps that animal farming can take to address its enormous footprint. 

If managed properly, using these kinds of animal waste can also prevent pollution.

Serious pollution incidents in the UK from livestock farms are now a weekly occurrence, leading to damage to wildlife, fish, farm livestock and air and water pollution,” according to the Guardian and Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Slurry from dairy farms is a major offender. Finding alternative uses for slurry – so that it isn’t kept in potentially leaky stores or sprayed on crops in excessive quantities – may therefore be beneficial.

For some, using animal products for energy is therefore a positive step towards mitigating climate breakdown – arguably the most significant threat to animals around the world.

For others, it normalises and funds an industry that exploits animals for human consumption.

Farmers can be paid for their by-products, meaning that such energy supplies can help to sustain and profit animal farming. While animal-based energy is only a very tiny part of this picture, you may feel that anything contributing to animal farming should be avoided.

The use of animal waste for energy may also be of concern given the nature of much animal farming in the UK. Over 70% of animals are raised on factory farms, where they can be subject to horrendous overcrowding, mutilations and other serious violations of animal welfare.

Rear view of tractor spreading manure on field
Spreading waste manure from animal agriculture on fields

If I buy a vegan tariff will all the energy in my house be vegan?

The confusing thing about energy is that what you specifically buy isn’t personalised for your house as your supply.

Homes in the UK receive their energy from the ‘grid’. The grid can be thought of as a big pot for all the different energy we generate – from solar through to coal. When we turn our lights on, we essentially take a spoonful out of the mix. In practice, therefore, all energy we buy is from a combination of different sources.

So why is buying better energy important? When you set up a tariff with a truly green company, they will ensure that the money for your energy goes straight to green generators, even if your supply doesn’t directly come from them.  

The same goes for vegan energy. Whatever you do, your dishwasher may end up part-powered by manure. But you can ensure that none of your money went to animal farming.

If you truly wanted to separate your energy supply from animal exploitation, you’d have to make sure you were generating it all yourself, for example from heat pumps or solar panels. This is sadly a step most of us can’t afford!

Is most energy vegan?

Animal products are used for around 1% of the electricity produced in the UK. For comparison, solar accounts for around 4% of electricity generated, and plant-based biomass accounts for over 10%.

That doesn’t mean, though, that 99% of electricity used in our homes is vegan. Because electricity from all sorts of sources are mixed together in our ‘energy grid’, your light or kettle might be using some wind, some nuclear and some animal energy all at once.

Which energy companies are not vegan?

Energy company Ecotricity checked the energy supply for some of the other major UK companies, using government data. It found:

Energy supplier Animal waste in fuel mix? Feedstock details
British Gas Yes Animal manures
Bulb Yes Animal manures and cattle slurry
EDF Yes Pig slurry
Good Energy Yes Animal manures and pig slurry
NPower Yes Animal processing by-products
SO Energy Yes Poultry litter and slurry
SSE Yes Cattle slurry

(Source: Ecotricity website, "This is based on Ofgem data - REGOs redeemed for supply period Apr-20 to Mar-21")

Which energy companies are vegan?

There is only one energy company which is certified vegan in the UK. You may have guessed which it is from the fact that it’s done a lot of research into this topic!

Ecotricity is certified vegan by the Vegan Society and Viva!.

What can consumers do?

If you decide that overall you don’t think it is worth it to use animal products in energy and want to take action on it, here are a few actions you could take:

1. Write to your current energy supplier

Usually, our number one action would be to consider switching energy suppliers to a vegan option. However, with the energy market in crisis, switching could be an expensive move right now.

Writing to your supplier can be a good alternative action to take. Companies take the views of their customers seriously. If enough customers express concerns about links between their energy supply and animal exploitation, they may pay attention.

2. Get ready to switch

While you may not want to switch right now, there’s nothing to stop you getting ready to change suppliers once prices are more stable. Use this article and our energy suppliers guide to work out who you want to move to.

You should also check what kind of energy contract type you are on. Some contracts may be ‘fixed term’, for example for one year, and have an exit fee if you leave early. By looking at this, you can work out when it might be a good time to move in the future, and set a reminder on your phone or in your diary.

3. Consider home generation

Home generation can be a great way to make sure your energy supply really is vegan, as well as to significantly cut your carbon footprint. Getting a heat pump is one of the single best actions you can take when it comes to reducing your climate impacts. Installing solar panels is also a great move.

Unfortunately, these options will only be open to those with a fair bit of savings in the bank, and not all housing types.