What is clean energy and how can I get some?

The problem of producing enough energy has always forced leaders and civilizations into a position of making sweeping moral choices and to pit nation against nation and people against people. There is always a price to pay for energy. Throughout most of human history the price for dramatic increases in energy was the enslavement and servitude of other human beings, or paying the stiff price for the toil of an engaged workforce. With the discovery of electricity and then the combustion engine, the requirements expanded beyond human energy to include other sources of power.

Today, we continue to experience the price of dependence on energy, complicated by the pollution and other problems created by some of these sources.

We’re hearing a lot these days about clean energy, which sounds like a good idea. Clean sure sounds better than the alternative, dirty. The call for clean energy breakthroughs was one of an interminable number of applause lines in President Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address. The President said:

Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they’re selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: By 2035, 80 percent of America’s electricity will come from clean energy sources. (Applause.)

Obama expanded on previous efforts that would have focused exclusively on renewable sources like wind and solar by adding nonrenewable sources like nuclear, natural gas and “clean coal.”

Would Obama’s call require a serious investment in technology and innovation and a reduction in oil company subsidies? That depends on what you consider to be clean energy sources? There is no clean answer to that question, resulting in the cacophony of conflicting views. I’ll explain.

Most people agree that clean energy is energy that is produced without burning fossil fuels. Examples include wind, small-scale hydropower, solar energy, anaerobic digestion, geothermal power, biomass power, tidal power, and wave power.

Then there are the disputed sources, some of which Obama cited:

  1. Nuclear power: Perhaps the cleanest energy source, nuclear burns no fossil fuels and produces no emissions–but it presents long-term and potentially catastrophic safety concerns.
  2. Natural gas fans bill the subterranean gas as alternative clean energy, but what everyone knows is that it is really “cleaner” energy, or an alternative to really dirty energy (oil and coal). Cleaner is better than dirty but not quite clean, if you know what I mean.

Critics say:

Those pushing natural gas as a transition fuel also overlook the other dirty impacts that natural gas extraction has on communities, water, air and public health. Natural gas production has caused serious problems across the country — from Wyoming to Pennsylvania. People are finding their water supplies polluted; air quality is diminished, and their property values are in decline.

3. Coal with carbon capture and sequestration is considered be some to be clean (a matter of dispute among environmentalists).

One way to reduce carbon emissions from coal-fired power is to capture and store it permanently underground, a process called carbon capture and storage (CCS), also called carbon sequestration. CCS has captured the attention of policymakers, power generators, and environmentalists because of its potential as a bridging technology that will permit the continued use of coal as a fuel source while not contributing to a further destabilization of the climate. A great deal of work is underway to develop and improve the technologies, legal frameworks, and policies required for wide-scale deployment of CCS systems.

Critics say it can’t happen fast enough, and will probably have unintended consequences.

The president’s speech came as many are talking about a clean energy standard, or CES, which would require utilities to generate a portion of power from sources that emit less carbon pollution. Now begins the lobbying, negotiating and deal making on CES legislation that will determine what will be considered clean energy, and to what standards the different sources will be held.

If you include natural gas and nuclear as sources, the country already is at close to 50 percent “clean energy.” The country’s power comes about 23 percent from natural gas, 20 percent from nuclear and 4 percent from renewable energy for a total of about 47 percent. This calculation makes 80 percent by 2035 a much less ambitious goal, although it is probably not what the President meant (but he didn’t have to say exactly what he meant; a nice piece of rhetorical crafting).

Including natural gas and nuclear as clean energy sources is the major point of contention.

One view:

Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, Senate energy committee chairman   made his position known Monday, following President Barack Obama’s call in last week’s state of the union for 80 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from clean sources by 2035. In the past, Bingaman has been skeptical of a broader mandate that includes nuclear. He said Monday that the White House has reached out to his committee to help develop the clean energy plan through legislation.

“My own view is that if we can develop a workable clean energy standard that actually continues to provide an incentive for renewable energy projects to move forward and can provide an additional incentive for some of the other clean energy technologies, nuclear being one, I would like to see that happen,” he said in a speech to NDN, a think tank.

The opposite view:

“If there was a broad standard that put natural gas, nuclear and clean coal in same category as renewable we would have serious, serious trouble finding a way to support that bill. I don’t see ourselves supporting something that would put all those in the same category.” –Sean Garren, clean energy advocate with Environment America, a federation of state-based environmental advocacy groups.

Groups like the Sierra Club and Environment America have said they are likely to oppose any clean energy mandate that includes nuclear, natural gas and some coal as options, while other environmental groups issued more cautious support.

Benefits

Regardless of whether clean energy standards include sources beyond the renewable, there will be significant benefits to the increased use of clean energy. Advocates hope that the use of clean energy, especially as total substitution for use of things like oil, will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

An additional reason why clean energy can be so desirable is because it tends to come from sources that are free. While harnessing this energy costs money, wind and sun aren’t owned by anybody in particular (or anybody such as hostile regimes in control of much of the world’s oil).

There are numerous people who believe that wind or solar energy could lead not only to a cleaner planet but also a more peaceful world. Cue We Are the World.

Challenges

One issue is how to transport collected energy from one place to another, since many places that produce this energy are located in remote locations. Changing the power grid to accommodate different sources of energy can help this problem, but this has yet to occur on a wide scale. There are other problems that have not been fully realized because it is not widely used. For instance, wind farms that can provide power can have significant effect on local bird populations.

Nevertheless, despite some negative consequences to the environment from things like wind farms or use of hydroelectric power, these tend to be minimal in comparison to the use of petroleum or non-clean coal. No power source is completely without risk

How can I get some?

While they argue in Washington, you can probably choose to purchase energy from clean sources from your local power company. I know we can from our local utility, Georgia Power, which says:

Now it is easier than ever to support environmentally friendly energy generation from sources like the sun and biomass. Just sign up for Georgia Power’s Green Energy Program and join a growing community of Georgians who support our environment and help generate more renewable power in Georgia.

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About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group (www.valcort.com). Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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2 Responses to What is clean energy and how can I get some?

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  2. Pingback: The day nuclear power dropped off the list of viable clean energy sources | rooftop

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