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Top Six Reasons We Need a Better Definition of Clean Energy

  
If every energy industry representative and every politician uses the term "clean energy" freely, how do we know what it really means?
United States Senator Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bingaman (D-NM) has just introduced his clean energy standard legislation, and yes, it has every energy source in it, except energy efficiency. Can a clean energy standard include all energy sources - and should it?

(b) DEFINITIONS.— In this section: (1) CLEAN ENERGY.— The term ‘clean energy’ means electric energy that is generated — (A) at a facility placed in service after December 31, 1991, using — (i) renewable energy; (ii) qualified renewable biomass; (iii) natural gas; (iv) hydropower; (v) nuclear power; or (vi) qualified waste-to-energy;

I have immense respect for the Energy Committee Chairman, but alas, his bill should be roundly and soundly defeated for the following five reasons.

First, energy efficiency is included within many State Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and Clean Energy Standards (CES), and it should be. Amory Lovin’s aptly fashioned the word “negawatts” and analytical groups like ACEEE have issued many substantive reports showing it is always cheaper and cleaner to offset generation, than generate energy. To perform the same task with less energy (and water) should be a national priority and a primary goal of federal, state and local government energy policy.

If we want to compete in the global marketplace, we will never have labor rates equivalent with developing countries, and material inputs are now global commodities — so only better processes and lower inputs (energy and water) can enhance our U.S. competitive edge and it’s time we take it seriously.

Second, the portfolio of renewable energy resources is the next cleanest option if developed sustainably. In terms of air and water pollution, wastes, and greenhouse gas emissions:  geothermal, marine (freeflow hydropower, tidal, wave, ocean currents and thermal), solar (daylighting, concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, and solar thermal), wind, and waste heat (combined heat and power, cogeneration) are essentially emission free and have low-or-no water. Geothermal and CSP are utilizing heat engines (brayton, organic rankine cycle, and stirling) to turn thermal energy to power without water as well as newer approaches to utilize less water than standard power plants.

Third, biomass power and fuels, based on organic wastes that cannot be returned to the soil such as contaminated agricultural wastes, forest thinnings, and manures and litter  are clearly winners as well in terms of air and water pollution and the benign removal of waste.  Instead of leaving manure in open pools (pigs), litter piles (poultry), or in manure lots (cattle) and allowing this waste to degrade into methane  a 20 times+ more potent greenhouse gas  biomass can be a solid winner on all counts.

Fourth, natural gas has traditionally been the third leg of the energy triad, for in most cases, it is the cleanest of fossil fuels and integrates well with the future renewable and hydrogen economies. I still believe that it can serve that purpose.  However, over-ambitious fracking may put that vision in jeopardy.  Aside from bans due to earth tremors in certain areas of Ohio and Great Britain  the real threat is the copious use of water resources and some of the elements also dislodged by fracking as the 2011 Duke University study “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing (PDF)” below concluded.

Directional drilling and hydraulic-fracturing technologies are dramatically increasing natural-gas extraction. In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction.

In August 2012, EPA released its report on whether or not fracking had contaminated the groundwater or polluted wells and the Wind River in Wyoming. According to an article on MSNBC.com, the “EPA emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area, noting that the specific type of fracking used there differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics. The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said.” 

But more serious may be radiation in the fracking wastes. An article published in March 2011 in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette stated the following:

Wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling may contain unhealthy concentrations of radioactivity, and federal officials, researchers, the industry and the former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection have called for testing of drinking water sources and full disclosure of results.

The New York Times reported in a story Saturday that 116 of 179 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania had high levels of radiation in wastewater samples and that wastewater discharges into rivers and streams were untested for radiation even though government agencies and the industry knew of the risks. The radiation is picked up by water used to hydraulically fracture the deep, 380 million-year-old shale layer and release the natural gas it holds

Fifth, all of the above pales in comparison with the carcinogens found in coal.  In February of 2011, the Environmental Integrity Project, together with Earth Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility collaborated to release a report called “EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash.”  The West Virginia Register-Herald, which covered the report, wrote:

Hexavalent chromium is a known human carcinogen and can be highly toxic even in small doses. According to the report, the Environmental Protection Agency found that coal ash leaches chromium in great excess of EPA thresholds, and the chromium that does leach from coal ash is nearly 100 percent hexavalent chromium…

By Scott Sklar, President, The Stella Group, Ltd.
March 26, 2012 

 

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