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Germany's largest utility, RWE Energie, plans to introduce a voluntary "environment tariff" for private electricity consumers aimed at boosting the use of renewables. At a recent RWE Energie workshop, utility chairman Roland Farnung said: "The results of a customer survey which we commissioned show that a large proportion of our customers are prepared to pay a higher price for their power if this means more electricity can be generated from renewable sources."

But unlike green pricing schemes in Denmark, Holland and the US, instead of buying clean electricity, the extra cash raised from customers will go into a fund controlled by the utility. This construction is already being viewed with scepticism as a utility ploy based on a deliberate misinterpretation of customers' wishes. The utility anticipates customers paying some DEM 0.20/kWh higher than the normal price per kWh of around DEM 0.28/kWh. It will contribute DEM 20 million to the fund, which it says will be used to cover the additional costs of installing and operating renewable energy plant. "To ensure transparency, each customer will receive an annual report on the activities which he or she has helped to finance," said Farnung.

The idea was greeted with considerable scepticism by journalists at the workshop. Some were disturbed by Farnung's admission that the plan is viewed more as a "communication strategy to come into contact with our customers" rather than a drive to increase the use of renewable energies. In a revealing remark, Farnung commented: "We haven't yet managed to convey to the public that renewables and energy saving are not the answer to our energy problems."

Another question raised was why customers would pay into an RWE Energie fund when they could buy into a renewables plant instead. The protected market afforded renewables by the Electricity Feed Law even allows a profit on such investment. Farnung responded by pointing out that renewables like solar energy are far from commercial. Furthermore, many consumers would rather make a steady, if small, contribution to renewables via their electricity bills rather than making a long term commitment by investing a lump sum in a wind plant, he said.

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