Renewable energy doesn’t always mean what you think

Renewable energy doesn’t always mean what you think


When you think of renewable energy, what comes to mind? Wind, solar. Wind power Wind energy, solar energy Solar panels, wind farms How about hydroelectric? Hydroelectric? Yeah. I would say yes. Burning wood? No? I think technically it’s a renewable energy. Burning trash? No? I feel like it’s a trick Hmm Depending on the state, any of the above. Let’s say these marbles represent different forms of energy. Most states set targets for how much power will come from renewables by a certain year. A big part of that is defining what can be included. But it’s not as simple as these stock photos might imply. See, there’s this area, right here, where it
gets a little murky. So what gives? I mean sure, there’s a pretty basic definition: something that renews. But when it comes to policy, it gets a little trickier. Colorado counts burning methane from abandoned coal mines. Maryland counts burning trash. Meanwhile, California doesn’t count either
of those. They also don’t count large hydroelectric
dams, which are a major source of electricity for the state. If all the states defined renewable energy
like California, the amount of “renewable energy” we say we have in the U.S. today would be roughly cut in half. So if we’re talking about energy sources that minimize environmental damage, what should we include? And what should we call them? Here’s one idea: States could aim for energy sources that naturally renew within a human lifetime : This could include solar, wind, and hydropower. They could also include burning plants and organic matter. But some of those energy sources come with consequences: damaging ecosystems or contributing to local air pollution. So, option two, what about using alternative terms like clean energy? Well, that comes with its own problems. “Clean,” like “renewable” is kind of
in the eye of the beholder. For example, Indiana has targets for “clean energy,” including efficient coal plants. That definition could help out a dirty industry, and, from a climate perspective, be a step in the wrong direction. Terms like “carbon-free energy” are easier
to define, but they also include more controversial energy sources like nuclear. Big picture: our energy system is a lot more complicated than just good or bad. This matters because it’ll have a real impact on the way we transition away from fossil fuels. A state that sets an ambitious energy target might opt for a shakier definition to help it meet those goals. A state that instead goes for purity – just
wind and solar! – might miss out on real opportunities to decrease its dependence on fossil fuels. Greener forms of energy are key to fighting climate change. But the country still has a long way to go
before its grid is truly renewable. Figuring out what we want that to mean is
an important first step.

7 thoughts on “Renewable energy doesn’t always mean what you think

  1. Nicely done. The last bit had 'fossil fuels and nuclear' (83%) and 'renewables' (17%). Given that the critical issue is emissions, that's a dangerous way to think about things: It needs to be 'fossil fuels' vs. 'renewables and nuclear'.

    Nuclear is very low-carbon, and has very low ecological impact in comparison to most sources. We have got to get beyond the 'ohh but its scary' thing, at least for the time being. Nuclear is definitely on the 'good' side of any sensible equation. I like to use the terms 'clean energy' or 'low-carbon energy', then obviously laugh at anyone who tries to put 'clean coal' in the 'clean energy' bucket – that's just stupid (unless by clean they mean 100% CCS in which case I guess that's acceptable).

  2. What crap. We don't need any new definitions; we need to not ask stupid, uninformed people and stop allowing the right wing to distort the definition to sabotage efforts or favor their pet source. Renewables are sources that renew or are inexhaustible on any human time scale: solar PV and CSP, wind, hydro, geothermal, tidal, wave, OTEC, biomass. Low carbon does not equal renewable. Clean does not equal renewable.

    According to the best scientists and most up-to-date science, we have less than 10 years to eliminate at least 90% of fossil fuel burning or we face unimaginable catastrophe. The survival of civilization in our lifetimes depends on NOT putting more greenhouse gases into the air and taking out all we can, by growing plants and deepening soil. 

    We have to avoid burning anything that's not absolutely necessary. Burning trash we shouldn't be producing or that can be composted and used for food crops is insane, even though it's renewable.  

    Half of US nukes are already losing money and the rest soon will be; while it makes sense to operate some until they can be replaced by clean safe renewable energy, it makes no sense to build new ones, especially the over-promoted next gen ones that DON'T EXIST. Nukes are too expensive, take too long to build and pay off carbon costs of construction, too dangerous to people and the rest of nature, and to equality and democracy, use too much and heat too much water, have intractable waste problems. They are not renewable. And the market religion that so many pro-nuke people swear by otherwise, has decreed they're not viable.

    We have to implement an immediate massive climate mobilization dwarfing the US' in WWII. Read more: www.theclimatemobilization.org

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