‘Clean energy’ may have a specific definition in your mind — you may think it’s synonymous with ‘renewable energy’ (i.e. wind energy, solar energy, hydro energy, and geothermal energy). This is, generally, how I use the term.
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However, ‘clean energy’ is actually a rather nebulous term, since there is no agreed-upon, standard definition of it. To some, clean energy also means nuclear energy. To others, it may mean natural gas. And it can even include so-called ‘clean coal’ (if you let it). As many have noted, Obama is one such person who uses this term very broadly.
Nonetheless, despite its malleable nature, ‘clean energy’ is becoming an increasingly popular term. Indeed, I think I use it more than ‘renewable energy’ now (and, as I said, to discuss the same energy sources or technologies). So, I will briefly explain why I use it like this, and why I use it so much.
Why Use ‘Clean Energy’?
I think ‘clean energy’ has become increasingly popular for two basic reasons,… or maybe three.
Firstly, ‘clean’ is a simple concept, and it’s easier to use simple concepts when speaking to the public (as politicians often are when they are using this term). It implies, rather clearly, that the use of these energy sources creates less pollution, is better for the environment. That’s a little simpler, perhaps, than the term ‘renewable’.
Secondly, people like ‘clean’ things. Generally, cleanliness is considered a good thing. And, in this context, ‘clean’ is the opposite of polluting, and pollution is widely considered too be bad. So, when speaking about whatever technologies you support (even if they are not clean in some people’s eyes, such as natural gas and nuclear energy), using a term that has a very positive connotation is popular.
Thirdly,.. well,.. with the term becoming more and more popular, it just makes sense to use it more (it’s a cycle).
Now, I think many people who use the term regularly would like to steer public opinion to using it for energy sources or technologies they support. And that gets us to the next section.
Why Use ‘Clean Energy’ How I Do?
Basically, I do not see natural gas, nuclear, or ‘clean coal’ as truly clean energy.
Natural gas has been documented to create all sorts of water quality problems. Natural gas production, as it occurs today, includes the pumping of massive amounts of toxic chemicals, carcinogens (that is, cancer-causing chemicals), into places they really shouldn’t go.
Leading energy and climate scientists have also specifically identified that using natural gas as a ‘transition fuel’ to get us off of coal power is a bad idea — it’s not going to be adequate enough to stop catastrophic global warming. That’s a big deal. Here’s one graphic from a recent study on the matter:
While I think it is important to develop carbon capture and sequestration technologies for coal, I don’ think coal could ever be considered clean. Coal costs the U.S. about $500 billion a year more than what is accounted for in its price, according to the former Director of the Harvard Medical School Center for Health and the Global Environment and 11 co-authors; the human cost of coal goes way beyond its impact on the climate, which is anything but negligible; and coal causes all sorts of other environmental problems. These days, we have gone the route of blowing up entire mountain ranges to extract coal, something that not only destroys mountains and mountain ecosystems, but also waterways and mountain communities.
Coal is not clean, even if we were someday able to capture the CO2 it emits and sequester it.
Nuclear comes the closest to being clean in my eyes. But it’s got one fatal flaw. One, it creates radioactive nuclear waste that lasts longer than humans are known to have existed for. I think it’s extreme arrogance to assume that we will be able to contain that for such a long period of time. There are other reasons for opposing nuclear energy (i.e. it’s an economic nightmare), but that’s why I don’t consider it ‘clean’.
What is Clean Energy?
So, with all that said, I do view renewable energy technologies as being clean, because they have a much, much lower contribution to global warming, and take from or harm the environment to a much, much smaller degree. I’ve seen many studies confirming this over the years.
So, basically, if you initially thought solar and wind energy when you thought of ‘clean energy’, I’m with you.
Top Image: wind turbines courtesy shutterstock.