Last week, I learned that clean energy in America is now dead — killed off before it had much of a chance to get started.
For me, clean energy was killed at a conference center in Roanoke, Virginia. But it could have happened just as well in your state too.
Along with colleagues from the city council of Staunton, a community of 24,000 in the rural Shenandoah Valley, I was attending an annual conference for elected officials from cities and towns around the state.
The afternoon of the event’s second day was reserved for small-group discussions on a dozen different topics ranging from urban deer control to recruiting businesses to fill Main Street storefronts to using electronic warrants in law enforcement. I selected the breakout on clean energy. There were already half a dozen other people seated at a round table when I pulled up a chair.
On my left was a local official from an Appalachian coalfield county in the far southwestern corner of the state, a big man in his sixties with a full head of white hair and a bluegrass accent. “I know how y’all probably feel about coal,” he said. “But in our area it’s all we’ve got and if it goes away we lose all our jobs.”
Next to him was a more urbane fellow in an expensive suit who said that he’d recently retired from 38 years with a major oil company. “You’d know the name if you heard it,” he explained.
I couldn’t figure out why these guys were at a discussion on clean energy.
On my right was the session organizer, a slim man in his late forties with a goatee who worked for a statewide advocacy group promoting energy efficiency. He was collecting feedback from conference attendees for the state’s new energy plan being developed by Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who previously did fundraising for Bill Clinton and also once owned a company that planned to make electric cars.
Things were about to get weird.
All of the above and more of the same
The organizer opened the discussion by defining the term “clean energy.” After years of Sierra Club events, I thought this task would be simple enough. It turned out that I was wrong.
Clean energy, the organizer explained, included not just the usual solar, wind, hydro and biomass. Also clean, according to the Commonwealth of Virginia, were natural gas and nuclear power.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. Basically, it was a variation on President Obama’s “All of the Above” energy policy with a definition of clean energy so broad as to be meaningless. I suspect it’s the same way in most other states.
I looked over at the coal guy and then at the oil guy. Didn’t they feel left out?
Apparently, according to the state, every other energy source besides theirs was clean. Judging from this session, even the governor’s energy plan didn’t have the chutzpah to mention “clean coal.” And I guess nobody has bothered to come up with anything like “clean oil” yet.
So I almost felt bad for the coal guy and the oil guy.
But I needn’t have. The oil guy wasn’t shy about putting out ideas to take advantage of the state’s “clean energy strengths” when the discussion came to that. “We have plenty of uranium. We should lift the ban and start mining that.” The coal guy seemed to like the idea too.
Clean nukes with a side of clean fracked gas
This reminded me of a public hearing back home in Staunton a few weeks earlier when I had the chance to question an electric utility executive. He claimed that a large part of his company’s power came from carbon-free sources.
Nuclear power? Yes.
I queried the utility executive about his company’s use of nuclear power. I wasn’t going to hold back, since I’m firmly convinced that it is nothing less than a criminal enterprise to produce electricity whose byproduct is radioactive waste that remains dangerous for hundreds of years.
“Nuclear power is an apocalyptic energy source for which future generations will curse us,” I opined, admittedly taking the opportunity to give a bit of a lecture, hoping it would benefit citizens in the audience.
“Most people don’t share your opinion,” the executive shot back, clearly irritated. “A majority of Americans support nuclear power.” That may or may not be true, depending on whose poll you trust. But it makes a great corporate talking point.
Back at the local government conference in Roanoke and the clean energy breakout session, I was glad to see that I wasn’t the only one at the table who winced at the thought of uranium mining.
A councilwoman and a couple of consultants from the liberal, eco-aware Washington, DC suburbs looked equally nonplussed. Aside from uranium’s role in nuclear reactors, the big issue behind the statewide ban was potential contamination of water supplies for densely populated coastal communities downstream.
“More natural gas buses,” one of the consultants suggested. Head nodding all around. Turns out, the state offers grants to help cities convert their fleets to run on compressed natural gas.
Of course gas had to come up as clean energy. All too many greens in big metro areas believe the industry line that natural gas is a much cleaner fuel than oil for transportation. But the big selling point of gas is replacing coal to generate baseload electric power.
You have to live pretty far from gas production, done these days largely by fracking, to think that gas is clean.
If only more big city and suburban liberals had seen the two Gasland documentaries by Josh Fox, they’d know how hated natural gas is for fouling home wells and town water supplies alike in rural communities that have been fracked from Colorado to Pennsylvania.
And when you throw in the methane leaks during production that may make natural gas as dirty as coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions, then you need a lot of confidence in the industry to keep believing that natural gas is a clean fuel.
If that’s clean energy, you can keep it
It’s easy to understand why dirty energy promoters would want to hijack the term “clean energy.” As Clean Technica explains,
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 to 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).
So I understand that many people who support renewables will agree with Clean Technica that “clean energy” is the best way to talk about solar, wind, hydro, geothermal and other no-carbon or low-carbon energy sources.
But after learning how the Virginia Energy Plan views clean energy, I won’t be one of them.
Instead, the next time somebody talks about clean energy, I’m going to be suspicious. Are they just trying to sell me dangerous old wine in new green bottles?
At the Roanoke conference breakout session on clean energy, we concluded our discussion with the surreal exercise of brainstorming ideas on how best to spread this kind of energy more quickly around the state. At the time, I just couldn’t tap my usual eagerness to give free marketing advice.
But now I think that perhaps they should try milling the uranium on the lawn in front of the state capitol. There’s a nice clear spot around the corner from the statue of George Washington.
Reposted from ErikCurren.com.
— Erik Curren,Transition Voice