Vegetarianism and veganism are two of the fastest-growing lifestyle trends in the world, with rising awareness of climate change, animal welfare and personal health driving a desire to cut out animal-derived products from our daily lives. Now it seems this lifestyle can extend to our energy consumption, with Ecotricity’s exposé on 4 July that the use of animal by-products and even animal body parts in power production is prevalent in the UK.

What is vegan energy?

According to Ecotricity, vegan energy is simply power that does not use animals or animal by-products in any stage of the production process. The company’s own vegan energy is produced solely from wind, solar and tidal sources, and it intends to begin using grass to generate ‘green gas’ in the near future. The company’s energy has already received Vegan Society registration and its gas supply is on course to receive the same designation.

In contrast, the two primary sources of ‘non-vegan’ energy in the UK come from anaerobic digestion (AD) and biomass, both of which can include the use of animal farming by-products such as fish body parts, slurry or animal waste. Such practice is deemed ‘widespread’ by Ecotricity, enacted not only by the Big Six energy companies but also by smaller suppliers and even some renewable firms.

Who produces non-vegan energy?

Among the companies called out for their use of animal parts was SSE, with Ecotricity citing a 2017 statement which said the firm used dead salmon from factory fish farms in Scotland to generate some of its power. Green energy companies such as Good Energy, Octopus and Bulb were also included for their use of pig slurry in their energy production.

Such companies “need to come clean,” says Ecotricity founder Dale Vince, adding that

more transparent information on how energy is produced is required “so that people can make informed choices”. However, the validity of such accusations has come into question as many companies that use animal waste in energy production process manure and not waste from meat processing. And while some vegan consumers may prefer animals to be absent from the energy cycle altogether, it is an important distinction to make to avoid misleading the general public.

Do we need to worry about vegan energy?

All of the firms in Ecotricity’s list of ‘contaminated’ energy mixes were included for their use of animal dung in their production process rather than body parts. The unethical nature of this practice is debateable, as the argument can be made that it does not add to a harmful process but only ensures the resulting waste is used productively, as regardless of it being generated from meat or dairy farming, animal dung has to go somewhere.

Today’s most crucial issue faced globally is “decarbonising our heat and electricity” says Renewable Energy Association head of policy and external affairs James Court, adding that “AD is a clean, dependable and critical technology if we are to produce more green gas”.

“As long as meat continues to be part of the UK’s diet, it would be unforgivable if we didn’t reduce food waste through reusing farming by-products such as slurry and animal poo to produce renewable energy,” he says.

Indeed, generating biogas from slurry is a well-established method for making the agricultural industry greener, curbing methane emissions and producing a digestate that can be re-used as fertiliser. Details of such practices are also not the secret Ecotricity claims they are – and which its campaign hinges upon – but rather they are often promoted in press and marketing materials.

UK-based renewable power companies Bulb and Good Energy declined to comment on the accusations, neither wanting to engage with a debate they saw themselves as external to. However, a statement released by Bulb revealed that only 1%-2% of its energy comes from animal by-products, with this again being pig excrement.

The manure “helps to reduce reliance on fossil fuels by using by-products that may otherwise go to waste”, according to the spokesperson. “These animal by-products are also often used as fertiliser for e.g. organic vegetables”.

This point was also made in a blog post on the company website titled ‘Our pig poo is as veggie friendly as organic carrots’, which was posted in August 2016. The post compares the use of animal excrement in gas to its use in fertilising vegetables, saying “organic vegetables are fertilised using animal waste…often from pigs”.

A valid concern is in the treatment of the animals at the farms from which slurry is procured. While Bulb’s blog post said it does not buy litter from sites “with animals kept in intensive farming units”, Good Energy was called out for sourcing manure from Lambrook pig farm, a place renowned for the poor conditions animals are kept in, as reported by the Daily Mail.

This information was reported in the press last year, though Good Energy said it was unaware of the bad conditions and that it would investigate the situation, with a spokesperson saying “we are very concerned to hear of alleged animal mistreatment…we have asked Wyke Farms to conduct an investigation into this immediately”.

Of course, regardless of living conditions the waste will still be sourced from a site which rears animals for meat, though whether this counts as contributing to the meat industry relies on the opinion of the consumer.

Perhaps more concerning to vegetarian and vegan consumers is the use of dead fish by SSE, with salmon pulped into organic waste to create methane-rich biogas before being burned to produce electricity. Yet even this move has been defended as sustainable as it provides a use for the millions of farmed fish that die from disease each year. The Times reported that in 2016, more than 22,000t of fish died in Scotland – the equivalent of about five million fish – with many sent to sites for AD as a means of disposal.

As chief compliance officer at the Scottish Environment Protection Agency Anne Anderson told The Times, “we appreciate the sensitivities this may cause when animal by-products are used” but really this is “a matter between companies and their customers”.

Companies are already beginning to realise the importance of transparency around the process, of engaging the public and improving the ways in which energy is produced. But ultimately, the decision to turn to ‘vegan’ energy sources lies with the ethics of individual consumers.