This case was submitted as part of the Call for Innovations, an annual partnership initiative between OPSI and the UAE Mohammed Bin Rashid Center for Government Innovation (MBRCGI)
The energy regulator of Flanders, Belgium, has launched a new interactive online tool, ‘GreenCheck 2.0’, allowing each citizen and company to check the characteristics of the electricity supplied to their home, such as the percentage of renewables, the country of origin and the energy source.
This way, the government caters to the increasing demand for green contracts, the need for transparency from suppliers and the government, while overall empowering the liberalization of the energy market.
Consumers are growing more concerned about climate change and their carbon footprint. One direct way for citizens to close the gap between environmental concern and consumer action is by choosing a green electricity contract. As the energy regulator for Flanders, one of VREG's tasks is overseeing the market and trade of green energy. To be able to sell electricity from renewable resources, energy suppliers are legally required in Belgium - as in most European countries - to hand in guarantees of origin. These guarantees of origin are a form of proof stating the country of production and the technology used and must be handed in to the regulator and cancelled based on the volume of supplied electricity on a monthly basis.
Together with the growing interest in green electricity, there is also a the customer's concern about whether the supplied energy is really green, show various surveys conducted by VREG and others. While it is one of the core tasks of the government through VREG to oversee the domestic and international trade of the guarantees of origin and their cancellation by the suppliers, the other is communicating the findings to the public. The general fuel mix of each supplier is calculated yearly by VREG and is a mandatory section on the energy invoices. However, registration of the individual contracts of each citizen and checking one by one whether the contractual guarantees concerning the percentage renewables are fulfilled, is not technically nor practically feasible - although of great societal relevance.
To counter effectively and efficiently the challenges of the 21st century, such as this one, the public service must explore new and more agile models and methodologies to perform its tasks and meet the changing needs of citizens in complex environments. In response to this, the VREG together with the Flemish Minister of Energy, launched a tool, the GreenCheck (1.0), in 2012 as a means to inform citizens, enterprises and local governments about their electricity consumption. It provided proof of the percentage of green (=renewable) or grey (=nuclear or fossil) character of the electricity supplied per individual customer, accessible by inserting the connection point number online on the VREG-website.
In recent years, the interest and concern of the customer has expanded beyond the scope of the first version and the need for a second GreenCheck arised. The objectives of the GreenCheck 2.0 launched in 2018 were three-fold:
1) Provide more information: include data on the country of origin and type of energy source;
2) Use the citizen generated results as a means to control and regulate the electricity suppliers;
3) Enhance the liberalization of the energy market by leveling the playing field.
Technically, the tool functions by following a four-step process:
1) The suppliers report to VREG on a monthly basis the customers with a green contract;
2) The VREG passes these lists on to the distribution grid operators who add the volume of electricity consumed per connection point;
3) Based on the volumes, VREG calculates the quota per supplier and per commercial product of guarantees of origin that need to be cancelled;
4) VREG performs initial checks and publishes the results of the characteristics of the cancelled guarantees of origin online through the GreenCheck tool.
In essence, the GreenCheck 2.0 is successful in innovating the way energy regulation works and combining multiple purposes by creating a methodology that steps away from the 'central government'-system and implements a decentralized citizen powered framework. The tool serves a purpose to citizens by informing them objectively about the electricity they consumed and secondly serves a purpose to the government in its task to regulate which otherwise could not have been performed. If citizens find inaccuracies between the GreenCheck and their contract, they can contact VREG who will impose disciplinary actions on the suppliers. This has already happened on multiple occasions and, only shortly after launching the tool, also on a very large scale and to a major supplier.
Citizens in turn are more informed and can make more conscious choices when choosing a supplier. This fact-check system also demands fair play in the liberalized energy market and even sparks innovation as well, for example in emerging suppliers that use the characteristics of the electricity as the core of their business plan.
What Makes Your Project Innovative?
The GreenCheck 2.0 is a citizen empowered tool used to perform an import governmental regulatory task which would otherwise be impossible to perform by using traditional methodologies. As the regulator VREG, we already have some informational tools available for citizens to compare prices of contracts, the service level of energy suppliers etc. but the GreenCheck 2.0 tool is innovative in the way that it simultaneously informs citizens as well as puts the initiative for the regulation of the energy market in their hands with important results of common interest. It is/was the first of its kind in Europe and belongs to the group of methodologies and innovations that will permit governments to tackle 21st century challenges and support sustainable development; a group that will only grow in importance in the upcoming years. The principal characteristic of these innovations as well as the GreenCheck is decentralization of the main constraint from a central government to its citizens.
What is the current status of your innovation?
As of September 2018, the tool has been launched for four months and is at the stages of evaluation and diffusing lessons. The evaluation of the project is conducted focusing on both a goal orientation and technical level.
On the level of evaluating if the goals set have been achieved, we are consolidating our own internal evaluation with feedback from different stakeholders and using it to look forward and keep pushing the boundaries of innovation, namely as input for a potential new version of the tool in the future. As an example: the tool now shows the country of origin of the electricity supplied but in the European framework of local energy supply, we would like to add more detail by providing a map based on the (Flemish) zip codes of the renewable production devices.
On the technical level, the last kinks in the technical and IT processes are/have been sorted out to ensure the tool delivers what had been set out to every and all users.
Collaborations & Partnerships
In 2015, VREG organised a workshop on energy disclosure, with national and international participants from a broad range of stakeholders: small and large suppliers, international NGOs, energy traders, consumer organisations etc. and the conclusions were publicly consulted first in 2016 before consolidation into an official proposal to the government.
One of these conclusions formed the basis to start upgrading the GreenCheck (only showing green/grey electricity supplied) in 2017.
Users, Stakeholders & Beneficiaries
Citizens are empowered by the ability to easily check contractual promises and quickly act upon inconsistencies by filing a complaint to their supplier/VREG. For companies, the tool evens the playing field for energy suppliers since promises made in contracts can be verified, encouraging fair competition. City governments organize so-called 'group purchases' for green energy contracts, negotiating better prices for their inhabitants while contributing to the city's environmental goals.
Results, Outcomes & Impacts
We have noticed a positive effect of the outcomes of the GreenCheck-tool on all users, stakeholders and beneficiaries.
Two of the major achievements include reprimanding one of the major energy suppliers in Belgium and enhancing the liberalization of the energy market by creating room for new innovators. First, through complaints of users of the GreenCheck users who compared their contract with the results online, it was revealed that one of the largest electricity suppliers in Belgium does not supply green energy to their customers when contractually promised so - on a large and consistent scale.
Second, a start-up, new electricity supplier in Flanders has a business model relying on the GreenCheck 2.0 (very specific promises about the production devices and energy sources) because its contractual promises can only be demonstrated by using the GreenCheck 2.0, as an objective, quick and easy tool.
Lastly, the tool overall strengthens the execution of the regulatory tasks of VREG.
Challenges and Failures
The development of the tool faced challenges that were mostly relating to IT. Since the GreenCheck is an online tool and heavily relying on information flow between different parties, adequately aligning those IT-systems as well as developing a new interface tool, proved to be a coordination challenge. In a next phase, running tests and working out the last details and kinks, also took more time that planned and caused some delays. One currently still ongoing challenge is including more detailed disciplinary measures taken based on the results of the GreenCheck into legislation.
Conditions for Success
For the implementation of GreenCheck 2.0, the conditions essential for success were threefold: societal relevance, cooperation from supporting services and legal regulations.
Seeing the cost (borne by a tax-funded public sector organization), the number of parties involved for information supply, and substantial work load of all parties, societal relevance is crucial and this project fits into the growing environmental concern of the modal citizen. The societal relevance served in its turn as a basis for leadership and policy interest. Second, cooperation from the distribution grid operators who supply necessary information such as consumption data as well as well-performing IT-services are indispensable. Lastly, embedding the projects foundations into the law, makes for a robust framework where all parties cannot escape their responsibilities which ensures longevity of the project.
The first version of the GreenCheck, which simply showed the percentage of renewables per connection point, has been replicated by the other Belgian energy regulators (for the Brussels Capital Region and Wallonia).
Some European countries such as Germany and Finland have shown interest in replicating the GreenCheck 2.0 in the near future. Since most European countries have a renewable energy regulation also connected to the scheme of the Association of Issuing Bodies (AIB) (which forms the technical input for the GreenCheck), all of AIB's Member States can in fact highly benefit from replicating the GreenCheck. Simply put, since the electricity grid in Europe is fully interconnected and synchronous, all connected countries and their citizens can only benefit from a collective checking mechanism.
Lastly, any public authority that is tasked with regulating individual contractual promises can profit from such a citizen empowered tool.
The GreenCheck 2.0 gave the VREG the possibility to execute the important regulatory task of the verification of the origin of green energy per customer, which would not have been possible using traditional governing methodologies. The results of the implementation taught us that this citizen empowerment methodology firstly achieved the goals that had been set out in terms of verifying contractual agreements of electricity suppliers, promoting the consumption of green energy and enhancing the liberalization of the energy market.
Discovering disappointment of citizens on a large scale by one of the major energy suppliers clearly showcased the GreenCheck's purpose. But secondly, and maybe even more important: this new approach to activate citizens as partners by putting them at the center, helped to promote government transparency. It turned out the be the ideal innovation to allow collaboration with those who have most stake in a policy and program's outcome and highly increased the responsiveness to contextual needs. Online tools are already commonly used for multiple purposes: informational, commercial, for entertainment, etc., but in the case of GreenCheck 2.0 it is used for both informative purposes towards citizens as well as simultaneously regulatory purposes in a public sector environment. Hence, it only was motivating to see the positive results fairly quickly and an inspiration to think ahead about new features of the GreenCheck as well as other subjects and tasks that could benefit from this approach.