If you take things to extremes, there is very little in the modern world that is purely vegan. When you start to delve deeply enough, almost everything you can imagine contravenes the strictest principles of veganism.
Some items contain some animal products (for example, chocolate); some have utilised animals products during their production (for example, a lot of beer has been filtered using the swim bladders of fish); some have been tested on animals, either during their development or the end products themselves (for example, medicines in the UK must have been test on animals); some have been grown in animal remains or manure (a good deal of organic food has been grown in bone meal, fish meal or manure).
As such, it should really come as no great surprise that most gas and electricity providers are not 100% vegan. Here we will explain why that is the case and whether it is possible to purchase your electricity from a vegan-friendly energy supplier (hint: yes, it is!).
Vegan-Friendly Electricity Providers
In fact, before we get our claws into the prickly subject of energy production, let’s cut straight to the chase. While we expect this to change, at the time of writing, there is just one energy supplier in the UK that has been officially verified as supplying 100% vegan electricity by the Vegan Society: Ecotricity.
The reasons Ecotricity give to back up their vegan credentials are that:
- They ensure they don’t inadvertently use animals in their energy production
- They produce their (green) electricity from the wind, sun and sea
- They are planning to make vegan-friendly green gas from grass
The main reason Ecotricity suggest they are vegan friendly whereas other producers of green energy are not is that others use some kind of animal product or other when producing their energy. These can include animal manure, slurry, poultry litter and other so-called waste products that are derived from animals.
Providers Who Are Almost Vegan
In the world of veganism, and life in general for that matter, issues are rarely black or white. The likes of Bulb and Octopus Energy, among an increasing number of others, produce 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. Where they fall down in the eyes of some vegans is that they use animal manure in the production of energy. But as Bulb state in a blog post they write about the issue, while they use animal manure, so do farmers who produce a lot of the organic fruit and vegetables that vegans tuck into on a daily basis.
From an environmental perspective, there is also a strong argument to suggest that while the manure is being produced, it makes sense to use the gas from it to produce energy rather than simply letting it escape into the atmosphere. Given that methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide when it is first released into the atmosphere, it might as well be burned to create energy that would otherwise have to come from a different source that is potentially even more harmful to animals in the long term.
Of course vegans would argue that there shouldn’t be animals on farms producing the manure and slurry in the first place and so it’s wrong to use it for any purpose. But when some of the alternatives are likely to have devastating effect on the environment, a pragmatic approach might be worth employing. This can be viewed in the same way as the fact that many vegans choose to keep companion animals: it is making the best of a bad but pre-existing situation.
Every vegan draws their own lines when it comes to how far along the spectrum of veganism they want to go. And, as we shall see below, there are arguments that call into question the vegan credentials of just about every method of energy production you can think of.
How Is Gas & Electricity Produced in the UK?
Before we assess the various methods of energy production for whether or not they adhere to veganism, we’ll take a glance at where our energy comes from.
The vast majority of home energy needs in the UK are satisfied by providers of gas and electricity, with a small number of homes relying on solid fuels or some kind of oil (or oil product) for heating or cooking. As the majority of the gas used in the UK is naturally occurring, there isn’t too much to say about it from a vegan point of view, though some may suggest it falls down on that front (see below). Electricity production, meanwhile, is a lot more varied and gives us a little more to get our teeth into.
Electricity Production in the UK
The UK consumes around 350 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity each year. A single terawatt hour is equal to 1,000,000,000 (one billion) kilowatt hours (kWh). To put that in context, a single kilowatt hour is the amount of energy consumed by a 1000 watt electric heater in an hour. Or about the same as 16 hours of manual labour undertaken by a healthy adult labourer.
How Electricity Was Produced in the UK in 2016 & 2017
|Fuel Type||Energy Produced (TWh) in 2016||2017 (TWh)|
|Oil & Other Related Fuels||10.4||9.7|
|Wind & Solar||47.7||61.5|
Data from Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Report: UK Energy in Brief 2018
The information shows that in 2017, approximately 40% of our electricity came from burning gas, 20% from nuclear, 18% from wind and solar power, 10% from oil or coal-fired power stations, and about 10% from other renewable sources.
A large proportion of vegans include environmental reasons as at least playing a part in their motivation to follow vegan principles. Given the evidence that burning fossil fuels has had a massive negative impact on the environment, it stands to reason that many vegans would aim to avoid energy providers who still burn fossil fuels to produce electricity. Thankfully, an increasing number of energy companies are embracing greener policies with many at least giving options for customers to purchase electricity that comes from 100% renewable sources.
From an environmental perspective, there are mixed feelings about nuclear power. Some suggest it is the only way to meet energy demands whilst also reducing the carbon footprint that comes with burning fossil fuels. Others argue that it only take one nuclear disaster (like at Chernobyl in 1986 or Fukushima in 2011) to cause untold environmental mayhem and that it is not worth the risk. The people in that camp prefer massively increased investment in environmentally friendly renewable options.
Indeed, the proportion of electricity in the UK produced from renewable sources has been steadily rising in recent years: 13.8% in 2013, 17.8% in 2014, 22.1% in 2015, 24.4% in 2016 and 27.9% in 2017. This increase will be welcomed by vegans and non-vegans alike as the scale of the climate emergency we face becomes ever more apparent. The question for us, however, is which, if any, of these renewable sources of electricity production are vegan?
Renewable Sources of Electricity in the UK
Here we delve a little deeper into the renewable energy sources to find out what they are and whether or not they are vegan friendly. It is not as clear-cut as one might assume, though, as even the most apparently vegan-friendly options can have repercussions for the animal kingdom.
How Electricity Was Produced in the UK in 2016 & 2017 – Renewables
|Renewable Source||Energy Produced (TWh) in 2016||2017 (TWh)|
Data from Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy Report: UK Energy in Brief 2018
Onshore & Offshore Wind
Clearly creating energy by harnessing wind has to be up there with the cleanest forms of energy production. If you leave aside the energy and material costs involved with the production of the wind turbines, onshore windfarms are an excellent option from an environmental perspective in that they produce no emissions and very little in the way of pollution (maintenance and part/turbine replacement may produce waste and there can be issues over noise pollution).
On the flip side though, the wind turbines have to be put somewhere, and whether this is in a field or off the coast of the UK, this is going to have an impact on the local environment. There have also been plenty of reports of birds and bats being killed by the blades of the wind turbines, which is clearly less than ideal from a vegan perspective. Some of the habitat loss can be mitigated by spreading turbines out on land that is used for other purposes, whether farming or meadowland or something else.
Realistically though, many more birds and bats are going to perish and fish and other sea creatures be disturbed if we continue to destroy our planet, so making use of the wind when producing electricity has to be better than the fossil fuel options.
Solar PV (or photovoltaic) energy production harnesses the sun’s energy and converts it into electricity. As with wind farms, large-scale solar panel installation can lead to habitat loss for many animals. Unlike wind farms, it’s not really feasible to include large scale solar panel facilities within areas of land that continue with other uses and so land degradation can also be an issue. There is also the potential issue that the chemicals used in the PV cells and in the products used to clean the surfaces of the panels could pollute the environment.
Again though, it really comes down to the balance between the potential harm and the potential benefit to the environment, and there is little doubt that, especially when compared to the burning of fossil fuels, solar energy production is positive.
Landfill gas involves the collection of methane from biomass that has ended up at landfill waste sites. This is arguably one of the greenest of all energy forms in that if the methane had not been captured it would simply escape into the atmosphere and thus contribute to global warming.
Of course, from a vegan perspective, there is no way of knowing exactly what biomass has been dumped in landfill and it is almost certain that some of it will include meat leftovers and other animal remains. However, with the increasing number of people separating their food waste rather than sending it to landfill with other non-recyclable waste, landfill gas as an energy source is declining in the UK with food waste collections allowing a more efficient use of energy conversion without having to separate other rubbish found in landfill.
This section is a little on the vague side, perhaps alarmingly so given that it made up almost 30% of the total electricity produced from renewable sources in 2017. It needn’t be shrouded in mystery however: bioenergy energy is simply the energy contained within biomass, which in turn is materials that come from various biological sources, including plant matter (sugar cane, straw, waste wood, crop waste and so on), animals waste products (manure, slurry, poultry litter, even fish parts), or from microbial fuel cells that convert chemical energy to electrical. Most bioenergy comes from burning the biomass directly, or burning the gas given off by the biomass.
The process of anaerobic digestion is used by many energy firms. This process involves the heating of organic materials, for instance, animal slurry or manure, in the absence of oxygen. With the help of various microorganisms (which are not animals, for the record), methane is produced, which is then collected and burned to produce electricity in a similar way to how natural gas would be used in a gas-fired power station.
What Is Natural Gas?
Natural gas is the stuff that comes out of the gas hob when we turn it on, and that is piped into the boilers that heat the water in people’s home. It is also used in gas-fired power stations to produce electricity. According to the UK Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the total gas consumption of the UK in 2017 was 74.3 billion cubic metres, which is the equivalent to the volume of about 30 million Olympic-sized swimming pools, or about 1 million times the volume of the largest ever hot air balloon (the Pacific Flyer, used by Richard Branson and Per Lindstrand to cross the Pacific Ocean in January 1991).
Natural gas is made up predominantly of methane, with some ethane, propane, butane and pentane. It was created naturally (hence the name!) when plants, algae and some small animals were trapped between sedimentary layers of the earth millions of years ago. Because the remains of the organisms were effectively encased in air-tight tombs, there was no (or very little) oxygen present and hence they were not able to decompose in the same way that they would have had they been in the open. Instead, they turn into a substance called kerogen which is ludicrously abundant: there is estimated to be around 10,000 times more organic matter in the kerogen on (or under) earth than the total organic content of all living plants and animals!
When heated by a combination of the pressure of the sedimentary layers above and the earth’s natural heat, kerogen can convert into oil (at around 150°C) and gas (at higher temperatures). This can then be forced out of the pores in the rocks by the pressure and collects in gaps in the rock. These are sought out by gas exploration firms and once a source is found, it is drilled for and extracted before being refined, stored and piped to customers.
Is Natural Gas Vegan?
If taken to extremes, given that natural gas contains the remains of some animals, some people would suggest that it cannot really be classified as vegan at all. As we’ve noted numerous times on this site though, vegans can only really be vegans when it is “possible and practicable” to do so. So, someone who happens to move into a house that has gas central heating would have to be extremely committed to the vegan cause to not heat their homes during the winter on the basis that there might be the remains of some animals from hundreds of millions of years ago.
Especially as they can’t just layer up with woolly jumpers given that wool isn’t vegan. But like a few other things, such as the use of medicines and vaccinations that have been tested on animals, there are times when the choices vegans have to make must take into account common sense and the bigger picture.
So, Is Anything Truly Vegan?
As we have seen, every conceivable source of energy has real or potentially negative effects on animals. Burning fossil fuels is proven to cause climate change. There are potential environmentally devastating effects of a disaster at a nuclear power plant. Many renewable energy sources cause habitat destruction, danger to animals or potential for pollution, and many of the green energy producers use animal manure. What is a vegan to do?
Well, when it comes down to it, the most dangerous thing that could happen to animals on this planet is for the environment to change to such a degree that animal life is no longer sustainable. As such, if taking the long-term vegan view, picking your energy supplier based on their overall environmental credentials could be wiser than simply focussing on whether or not they use animal slurry when producing their energy. Especially when said waste would potentially just be left to release its methane into the atmosphere anyway.