Can green card turn up trumps?

Remember greenhouse gases, melting polar ice-caps, natural resources depletion, and all the other doomsday jargon of the Eighties eco craze?

The power companies do. They’re about to blast us out of our latter-day complacency with a salvo of TV campaigns proclaiming the virtues of a clean and sustainable environment.

First off the blocks is PowerGen, next week, with a plug for its GreenPlan – launched last month. But the rest of the gang are primed to follow later this year: ScottishPower, npower (the sales arm of National Power) and British Gas Trading are all planning heavyweight campaigns.

Naturally enough, they are not acting entirely out of altruism. Deregulation has both sharpened competition within the energy industry and disposed it to be more consumer-friendly. Now that their traditional single-source user base is being eroded, power companies must seek new custom aggressively. And what better way to build the brand and make new friends than to play the green card?

And, to top it all, the Government is explicitly endorsing the energy companies’ strategy. It has set a target which will triple the current production of ‘green’ electricity to ten per cent of all production by 2010. With such powerful momentum behind it, how can such a commendable initiative fail? Quite easily, in fact.

To begin with, all existing green schemes charge the consumer for the privilege of participating in building a better future. True, the premium paid is matched by an equal amount contributed by the company itself and the gross sum paid into an independently-audited trust. But this does little to mitigate the perception that consumers are, in some mysterious way, being hoodwinked. On one level, they are being asked to contribute a voluntary tax that subsidises the Government’s commitment to green energy. On another, they may resent the idea of bolstering energy companies’ corporate prestige with their own hard-earned dosh.

As if this were not enough, there is immense ecology-fatigue among the very Middle Englanders these green energy policies must target if they are to succeed. Long gone are the days when consumers could be relied upon to buy masses of recycled paper and eco-friendly washing-up liquid in the touchingly naive belief they were ‘helping the planet’.

Instead, there is growing scepticism about renewable energy, not so much as a concept but as a solution. Are windmills, hydro-electric power, gas incineration, solar panels, biomass and the rest really capable of replacing fossil fuels as substantial generators of electricity? Is it not more likely that nuclear energy, an altogether more dubious proposition these days, will come to play that role?

The Government’s recent shiftiness over BNFL does little to persuade us otherwise. Quite the contrary. Its stance immeasurably devalues any credentials it may have as a champion of green energy.

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