This is a reply by GetUp!’s Anthony Gough to Andrea Bunting’s article “GetUp, Oxfam’s Powershop partnership raises questions” printed in Green Left Weekly #1064.
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It has been about 12 months since we at GetUp! launched the Better Power campaign, and so far we have encouraged 12,000 people to switch their household electricity away from Australia's biggest polluters.
The campaign has been hugely successful in raising awareness about renewable energy, a great hook to bring more people into the pro-renewable and anti-CSG tent, and a fantastic fundraising tool for GetUp!'s broader environmental campaigns.
At the same time it has also had its fair share of detractors, from both sides of the debate.
We have been attacked in the pages of The Australian by people such as Kieran Murphy, a spokesperson for the Australian Petroleum Production and Exploration Association, and most recently a range of concerns have been raised in this publication by renewable electricity expert Dr Andrea Bunting.
It is true that cooperative relationships between activism and capitalism can be fraught with potential difficulties and conflicts of interests, and carry the risk of blurring important lines between the interests of NGOs and corporations.
But these relationships can also have enduring benefits beyond simply being a superficial way to raise money or another avenue to preach to the converted.
Better Power campaign
First off, a little bit of history for those late to the show.
The Better Power campaign was launched on behalf of GetUp! members who were asking us for ways they could use their power as consumers to help drive change in traditionally dirty areas of the economy like the energy sector.
Our aim is to partner with companies whose interests align with those of consumers and the environment, and encourage Australian households and businesses to switch to them.
This serves to support companies that do the right thing, and lets everyday Australians add their voice to a campaign championing change in the energy sector. It is also a great way of raising money, and Better Power brings in much-needed funding for our anti-CSG and pro-renewable campaigning through a direct, transparent commission provided at no cost to the customer.
We chose Powershop as our launch partner primarily because of their green credentials — they offset all the carbon their customers create, they have commitments not to invest in coal or coal seam gas, they are owned by a 100% renewable energy generator, and they were named greenest electricity retailer in Australia by Greenpeace last year.
It is for these reasons we refer to Powershop as a “greener and cleaner” energy retailer, particularly in comparison to the big, dirty polluters like AGL, Origin and EnergyAustralia, who still provide power to more than 70% of Australian households, and have huge investments in coal-fired power and coal seam gas.
At last count, the generation arms of these companies spewed a total of 74 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere over the 2013-14 financial year. According to the most recent estimate of the social cost of carbon, that is the equivalent of a huge $4 billion in damage to the environment and health for that financial year alone.
Pulling people out of the clutches of these companies so we are no longer contributing to their profit margin is reason enough for the Better Power campaign.
In fact, Credit Suisse estimated that if our campaign can switch 30,000 customers away from AGL it would represent a $100 million hit to their bottom line — that's not peanuts, and it's not unachievable.
100% renewable energy
In comparison, Powershop's parent company Meridian is a 100% renewable energy company that has already invested more than $1 billion in renewables in Australia and operates two wind farms here, with capacity to provide zero-emission electricity to more than 100,000 houses.
It's important to point out, and we try to make it very clear, that those who switch to Powershop's standard offer won't get their power from Meridian's wind farms and their electricity won't be any different to what they were receiving from the grid under their old retailer.
As Dr Bunting says, the best way consumers can drive more renewable energy into the grid is by purchasing GreenPower-accredited products from their retailer. We totally agree, and point out as much in our FAQ when we write: “We believe that buying 100% GreenPower is the best thing you can do to support renewable energy in Australia.”
That is why we consistently encourage people to buy GreenPower over standard power offers, and why we are excited to be launching our own GreenPower offer with Powershop in the coming weeks, which we will be promoting to all existing switchers and newcomers as the best possible way to increase renewable energy generation.
Of the 12,000 people who have made the switch through the Better Power campaign, more than 3000 have already bought GreenPower products, resulting in the equivalent of an additional 4393 MWh of renewable energy going into the grid.
Earlier in her article, Dr Bunting notes that “total renewable electricity in Australia is determined by renewable energy markets — the Renewable Energy Target and GreenPower”.
This is true in a narrow, technical sense under the current energy system, but Australia's political commitment to renewable energy is also determined by the public's attitude towards cleaner technology and its passion for renewable energy.
From experience, we know that when enough people make a noise, governments listen, and the more people who get on board our campaign, the more policy-makers will sit up and take notice.
The 12,000 people who have made the switch so far are doing so much more than just engaging in “modern adult hygiene”, as Dr Bunting suggests.
With those numbers we have been able to attract mainstream attention to our cause and drive the campaign for a cleaner energy sector forward. We have encouraged switchers to lobby AGL, Origin and EnergyAustralia through social media. We have promoted petitions, engaged volunteers to host screenings of anti-CSG documentary Frackman and staged a flashmob of Powershop customers to meet environment minister Greg Hunt and demand real action on renewables and climate change.
Pressure on AGL
Our campaign is also heaping pressure on AGL at a critical time when they are weighing up their commitment to fossil fuels, particularly their CSG projects in Camden and Gloucester.
In recent interviews, new CEO Andrew Vesey has said the community's rejection of the Gloucester project and the subsequent impact on their retail brand was something that was of critical importance them as they consider their future in the sector.
Through the Better Power campaign we can influence that decision directly, both by mobilising citizens and community members to have their voices heard on the issue, and by taking millions of dollars directly from AGL's retail brand in protest of their CSG investments.
Energy giants are clearly worried about the damage to their brands from campaigns such as ours, and are pouring millions of dollars into pro-renewable greenwashing to counteract the negativity around their ongoing support for fossil fuels.
Based on the average energy usage of households connected to the Australian Energy Market, our campaign will offset an estimated 70,000 tonnes of carbon within the first year, the equivalent of 28,000 cars off Australian roads.
Yes, this is a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide spewed out by the big polluters, but we recognise this campaign is not an island — it is just one piece in a broader, sector-wide push towards promoting renewable energy above fossil fuel-based generation.
We realise that switching alone is not going to change the world, kill off coal, or save Australians from the devastating effects of runaway climate change. Similarly, our campaign won't replace or negate the need for real, grassroots activism of the type done by Lock the Gate and Our Land, Our Water, Our Future (OLOWOF) — a point made by Dr Bunting in her article.
That is why the Better Power campaign does not stop at the switch ask. We know the on-the-ground campaigning these organisations do is what really changes community sentiment around renewables and fossil fuels, which is why we have partnered with Lock the Gate and OLOWOF and helped spread their message through a ground campaign across the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales.
While we have been working hard on our community connections, the Better Power campaign has also been agitating for political change at the other end of the spectrum, in the halls of parliament.
In that respect, we again have an important ally in Powershop. It fought hard for the retention of the Renewable Energy Target, and was literally the only electricity retailer in Australia to raise its voice in strident support of the RET.
The reason may well have been self-interest, as Dr Bunting suggests. Nobody is expecting a retailer to operate outside its interests — to do so would be naive in the extreme — but when commercial interests align with those of activists, it gives a compelling opportunity for them to work together.
GetUp members now represent a full 20% of Powershop’s customer base, with the Better Power campaign enabling the company to launch in the New South Wales market. This is cold hard proof that we are successfully helping to scale up a pro-renewable energy company while ensuring the views of our switchers are respected since they represent a significant portion of their customer base. In fact, our partnership secured Powershop's commitment to never invest in coal seam gas or coal-fired power — a great example of how consumer campaigns can drive real changes in corporate policy to the benefit of all parties.
It's a difficult path to tread, but although it can be a case of strange bedfellows when activism comes into contact with corporations, we genuinely believe consumer power and the noise it creates can change the world, and we want to help our members achieve that.
We are working within the market that exists, gathering people together to push it in the right direction and using our numbers to lobby against dirty energy, coal-fired power and the companies that rely on it.
The most important thing for us is that our members and switchers agree with our approach, and so far feedback on our campaign has been overwhelmingly positive.
Of people who have switched, we have achieved satisfaction rates of over 90%, with 70% recommending the campaign to family and friends and 93% saying they would be willing to take further consumer action.
Importantly, more than 80% of switchers said the commission was a key reason for taking action and making the switch, an important indicator that switchers are not only aware of the commission-based relationship between Getup and Powershop — they actively support it as a donation channel.
The fact is, people can't live without electricity, and many cannot afford solutions like rooftop solar or even the regular purchasing of GreenPower products.
The Better Power campaign offers them a chance to switch to a greener electricity provider and to add their voice to a growing movement designed to force real change and have a real impact on the bottom lines of Australia's biggest polluters.
People cannot switch off their lights and sit in the dark as a protest against the unfair dirty pollution and an energy market fundamentally stacked against the consumer.
To do so would render them powerless, in the most literal sense of the word.