Finland is not only its government, it is also a complex society of actors, some of them being particularly successful or interesting. Here is one of Finland’s successes.
Once upon a time (in fact in 2010), 8 NGOs from 6 countries joined forces to develop an international ecolabel for electricity. The name of these pioneers are Bellona Russia, the Estonian Fund for Nature, the Latvian Fund for Nature, the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, Ecoserveis and AccioNatura from Spain as well as 100% Energia Verde and REEF from Italy.
Inspired by the approach of the North American Green-e label, they prepared a draft, discussed with more than 400 stakeholders, industry included, in line with the ISEAL Code of Good Practice for Setting Social and Environmental Standards. There was also a public consultation.
At the end of 2012, the environmental organizations involved decided to create the EKOenergy Network and in 2013, the EKOenergy Board approved the text ‘EKOenergy – Network and label’. Since then a group of enthusiast are working with the energy companies to develop the knowledge and the use of this ecolabel. This network is based in Lauttasaari, Helsinki, and has been extremely successful.
Finland Politics has met with Riku Eskelinen, the leader of the team of enthusiasts developing the use of this ecolabel.
What is EKOenergy history, and how does it work?
The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, the biggest and oldest environmental NGO in Finland, who first appeared in the 19th century, began eco-labeling electricity already in the ‘90s. We wanted to make it possible for any consumer to choose their electricity supplier and also the electricity products. It was launched simultaneously with our Swedish sister organization in Sweden.
At the time, the Finnish companies who owned some renewable energy power stations here wanted to sell this electricity as green, and maybe get a better price out of that. But, from the very beginning, it became clear that you need some kind of a third-party verification and audit. What is really green? How can you be sure that they are not selling more than they have produced? It is quite difficult, because you do not see the electricity, you cannot see if it is green. It was discussed by universities and energy industry, and they all said “How about if NGOs would take that role?” The Finnish Association for Nature Conservation accepted to do it, with a small team, and was running it successfully from the end of the ‘90s to the new millennium.
When I started working here in 2008, the electricity markets were liberalized in most of the Western European countries. And more and more companies in different countries sold something called “green power,” or some kind of ecological power. And the debate was quite strong, as more and more big international companies began to want to buy renewable electricity. But what kind of an electricity contract is really green and ecological? There were a couple of attempts, but they failed.
Finally, nobody was trying it anymore, but these big Nordic companies, like H & M and IKEA were giving these kind of signals, “it would be nice if there would be international criteria for electricity”. We decided, “Why not do that?”, but we didn’t want to do it alone. So I collected over 1,000 names of NGOs, contacts, emailed all of them, asked if they would like to join forces with us. We did a tour through Europe to visit those NGOs who showed interest, and then finally, we found the very first ones, about 10 organizations who were willing to begin the work to create international criteria for electricity. And finally, in 2013, we launched the criteria. It has been 3 years, now, from the very first criteria, and we are now entering into a place where we are having a review of the criteria system at the end of 2016.
Our partners are mainly European associations, but we are getting more and more interest, especially from the Asian NGOs and from Asian companies, for instance from Taiwan or India. We are also working in close cooperation with our U.S. sister organization, Green-e, which is eco-labeling electricity in the U.S.
So, is it successful? Are there a lot of people offered green electricity in Europe and in Finland, and are there a lot of people choosing it, even if it is a little more expensive?
We have been successful. Sure, green power market exists without us, but we are doing something a little different: we are not telling just “buy renewable electricity” or “buy green electricity”, we are promoting “buy eco-labeled green electricity”. That is because the renewables have also their biodiversity impacts, and just being green or renewable is not sufficient. For instance, there are very different kinds of bio-energy: sawdust is a good example of a more ecological source of bioenergy. It is a residue of wood industry. It cannot be really used for other purposes. If you just leave it to decompose, it causes severe greenhouse gas releases to the atmosphere.
On the other hand, you might also have bio-energy coming from virgin forests, for instance, from South America. Somebody just cuts down the trees to make wood chips and then sell it to the European markets and burn it to produce power here, and this is definitely not ecological and not sustainable.
The same applies to hydro power. In Finland, salmon is really endangered nowadays, and that is mainly because of hydro power. But you can mitigate the negative impacts of hydro power, for instance, by building fish passes on the power stations. We think that electricity coming from power plants with fish passes should be valued more than electricity from power plants, which do not have fish passes.
So ecological electricity cannot be only about guaranteeing that your carbon footprint is at zero. You have to also take into account sustainability and biodiversity impacts of renewables. Using EKOenergy criteria makes better impact on nature than just buying renewables.
What about nuclear energy?
We are only eco-labeling renewables. Nuclear energy has its own environmental impacts, which are higher than the impacts of those renewables, which we are eco-labeling, like the best of the other ones.
So what is your role in this labelling?
EKOenergy is a network, it is a network of European NGOs. We have 40 member NGOs from 30 different countries, and we, the Finnish Association for Nature Conservation, are hosting its international secretariat.
Have you lobbying activity in Finland?
We are doing some lobbying work, but very little, as we are focusing on purchasing policies of big organizations. We would like to see, for instance, national railways in different countries to take our sustainability criteria when they are purchasing their electricity. They are huge electricity users, and if they say, “I want this kind of electricity,” or “I want hydro power stations to have fish passes,” so then the fish passes would be put in. Or if they say “We want our electricity from wind power stations,” a lot of new wind power stations would be developed.
But, of course we also help when asked. In Finland and occasionally in other countries, we are participating in different hearings and are invited quite often by politicians or authorities to be heard, for example when they are preparing for new laws.
When was the last time you have been involved in this kind of panel?
I was last week in the Finnish Ministry for Economy. There is a working group which is preparing new support schemes for renewables in Finland. So, the feed-in tariffs would cease to exist, and we need a new system. The discussion is about the type of support system needed. I was giving our opinion, in particular focusing on what you have to take into account when you are preparing for a new legislation
Are you involved in municipalities sometimes?
Yes, we are now—we actually created a guide for municipalities, explaining how to use EKOenergy and its sustainability criteria in their electricity purchases. And we are marketing or lobbying the municipalities. We have one guy working to market it for municipalities, and also to the congregations. The Finnish church for example has a quite nice climate program, and in their program, they are recommending to the congregations to buy their electricity as EKOenergy labeled.
Our action in this field is not focused only in Finland or the Nordic countries. To give an example, we work with well-known eco-labels, such as, LEED, which is the most important eco-label for buildings in the world. It is run by the U.S. Green Building Council. For instance, the U.S. Embassy in Helsinki or the Sello Shopping Center in Espoo are LEED buildings. In order to get this label, you have to collect points: if you get 60 points, you get the silver level. 70 points the gold level, and 80 points the platinum level. If you are buying your electricity with our EKOenergy criteria, you increase your number of points.
Have you some consulting activity, paid or not? Paying customers or not paying customers?
We do a lot for free… For instance, at the moment, we are trying to help the Russians to launch the renewable electricity markets. It is quite interesting. We have some people contacting us from Russia, and actually, a lot of European companies who are in Russia, saying: “We are desperate. What can we do in Russia? Our carbon footprint in Russia is really high, and we can’t do anything. We would like to buy renewables or something, but you can’t do that in Russia. Can you help us?”
So we help for free. If we know something, and it is a simple thing, and it is not too much work, of course, we are not charging for that.
Where does your money come from?
When somebody buys EKOenergy labeled electricity, there is a small amount of money paid to us as a license fee, by the supplier of the electricity. The exact amount is 8 cents per megawatthour of power. That is not a lot. The extra cost of that for an average household consumer, like a flat in Helsinki, is about 18 cents per year. Or if it is a bigger house in Finland, a single family house, maybe 1 euro per year. With that money, we check the power stations, and we audit the company and we advise.
We have also some public funding, that is always project funding.
We got some funding from the Finnish state for the development work of the criteria, and now we are participating in a big EU project where we are getting funds for our work related to hydro power. But that is not a lot.
Luckily, we are accepted by the EU as an organization meeting the criteria for participating in the EU EVS program, the European Voluntary Service program. The EU pays us some money to host young European volunteers in the team (today we have 10 of them, staying for one year). We have, of course, some permanent staff, and some people working on projects for shorter periods of time.
Third source of funding is cooperation with different companies. This is also always project funding.
What is the global budget of the organization?
Of the EKOenergy? It is under 200 thousand euros total, 40 000 if you only calculate the costs of the secretariat. But then, we have some funds, which make the budget a bit bigger.
What are your the next 5 years?
We would like that a remarkable amount of big electricity users in Europe begin to use our sustainability criteria in their electricity purchasing! And this would result in new sustainable energy production in Europe, some remarkable projects, and remarkable improvements in current power stations, so that for instance, new fish passes and a bigger understanding of why you have to take account also of the biodiversity issues in the renewable energy sector.
Are the electricity companies able to provide certified electricity for everybody asking for it?
Yes, they are always able. The energy companies are making forecasts, concerning the demand for this kind of electricity, and then they are organizing things so there is always some kind of extra capacity available. But of course, if the demand grows really fast for this kind of electricity, the companies might be in a difficult situation. But I am quite sure the markets will adapt to the situation, and that they will provide, as they can transform some of their own power stations to fulfill the criteria.
So, if somebody in Finland wants to buy certified, labeled electricity, how should people do it? Call the provider and ask for it?
Yes, if it is a household, it is the simple way. You call the energy company and tell that you want EKOenergy labeled electricity. That is the only label now at the moment in Finland. There are about 10 different companies in Finland which are now having this in their portfolio. It is quite simple. You either call, or you go to the Internet, their Internet site, and change your electricity provider there. But you have to be aware that there is a difference between normal renewable electricity product and EKOenergy labeled renewable electricity product. So, check that it has the label.
What kind of difficulties are you meeting when you are trying to promote this in Finland and more generally in Europe?
We don’t have serious difficulties, except the resources. We do not have resources like big energy companies, which are making turnover of billions of euros. So, we are not able to make big marketing campaigns in all of the EU countries on the main television channels, or at least not yet—maybe one day. So, this is maybe one challenge. We have to find alternative ways to communicate about our work. This is also a good thing, because then we have to be innovative and find new ways. This is one challenge.
The other challenge, which has been a bit of a surprise for us, is that in bigger organizations the decision-making process is really slow. So, if you find the right person in a big company, who really says “I want my company to purchase all of their electricity with this kind of sustainability criteria,” it might take a year or two years or three years to really make that happen. So, the process is sometimes really, really slow.
In some countries, like especially in Eastern and Central Europe, the challenge is that the authorities are maybe sometimes making it a bit difficult. In theory, the markets should be open, and it should be possible to do these kind of things, but there are other kinds of problems. For instance, you need some kind of basic infrastructure in place for trading electricity, but they are not really in good condition, or they are too expensive to use for the electricity suppliers.
Are you publishing some kind of list of companies in Finland who are using and not using?
We are not publishing comprehensive lists, but there is on our website a list in 30 languages of companies using EKOenergy labeled electricity. They are examples from different countries.
It would be too heavy to have a comprehensive list. In Finland, there may be more than 10 000 companies who are using EKOenergy labeled electricity in Finland, and it is impossible to keep it updated, because they have 2 years contract, and then the situation changes. Maybe one day the electricity authorities will be able to provide such tools that make this kind of list possible
EKOenergy Volunteers: who are they, how do they feel about their experience?
We have asked some volunteers about their stories, and the reason why they came to Finland to work for Ekoenergy
Theresa, German volunteer
My name is Theresa and I’m from Erlangen, Germany. I came here to experience something new after completing my psychology studies. Psychology is about people, EKOenergy is about the environment. I care a lot about the environment because it is what defines our future. It’s not an easy task to dedicate yourself to the environment, and I am glad that here I can contribute toward making a real difference. That is why I chose to come and work here… Moreover, this gave me the opportunity to experience living in a new country, and I am relishing the chance to experience Finnish culture.
My job at EKOenergy is to contact different stakeholders such as consumers or electricity suppliers, to try and catch their interest in our eco-labeled energy and persuade them to use us.
The team here are from different nations across Europe, so we are native speakers who can easily communicate with our home countries. In my case, this means I focus mostly on German-speaking regions, particularly Austria and Germany. The first point of contact is usually via email.
Once there is a flicker of interest, the process can begin. Our label is still young, so people want to learn more about us, and we provide all the information and knowledge we can. From there we go step by step and hope that they will eventually use EKOenergy certified electricity!
Ana, Spanish volunteer
My name is Ana. I am from Spain. In my case, I am a journalist. I was working in Spain for some years, but I wanted to work abroad. And as far as I was working abroad, I would like to gain some experience, and to focus on some social or environmental issues. I discovered the EVS service, I began searching for different and interesting projects, so I found this one, which is useful, interesting and different. I am contacting Spanish and Portuguese potential users of our label in Spain and also in Portugal. We are trying to get members and to spread our eco-label. And I am working, too, in communication, writing some articles for Spain. That is interesting. We also spend a lot of time in translating documents.
I am also partly trying to get members in South America, but we haven’t gotten any positive reply yet, positive reply. But their renewable market is spawning out there, so we want to be active there.
It is an interesting experience, because almost every day, I am learning new things, like last week when we made a video. I love learning every day, and also working in communication one of my favorite fields. But at the same time, here you are not working for money, as in a normal company, you just get a grant from the EU to cover your living costs. You can say you’re working for a social or environmental goal. So, for me, that is much more enriching. And at the same time, it is some kind of work with companies in my country, so I am establishing also relations with them, and that can be also very helpful for my future.
Also, living here is a new experience, it is not the same routine as if you were working in your country. And there is the language, I am improving my English and learning a bit of Finnish, as we have language course as a part of our package.