What We Talk About When We Talk About Clean Energy

When we talk about “clean energy”, and depending on who we’re talking to, two sources will almost always crop up: natural gas and nuclear energy. These two have been included in clean energy lists before, but in many arenas today you’ll see them excluded from the roster—despite the fact that  some voices will insist that these two sources should still make the cut.

In a piece for Fast Company Exist, Michael Shank of NYU’s Center For Global Affairs and Environmental Activist Leilani Münter, argued that there was no way that natural gas and nuclear could be counted among the ranks of clean energy because to include them in the discussion, we would have to fundamentally change what “clean energy” actually means.  In particular, he noted that  “clean energy” means  “zero waste” and that by that measure alone both nuclear and gas don’t make the grade.

Notably, the same is true about other “clean energy”.  Methane for example has it’s own emissions to worry about.  Although it is a different beast than CO2, is still a beast nonetheless. In particular, “methane is 86 times more potent than CO2—per unit mass—as a global warming agent over a 20 year period.” Hardly “clean” by any measure

Methane emissions aside, natural gas is prone to leaks and carries the risk of explosions. It can also have devastating effects on the water we breathe, and the air we drink— effects that include congenital birth defects, respiratory ailments, and cancers.

There is a persistent narrative that claims natural gas is a “bridge fuel”, that is, one that allows us to move away from coal in search of a more permanent clean solution. But if the technology for truly clean and renewable energy already exists (hello solar, wind, geothermal, etc), then what’s the point of creating “dirty” infrastructure, just to tear it down? Resources would be better spent developing what we already know to be clean.

The problem with nuclear on the other hand, isn’t the effects it can have on the environment, or even the looming prospect of another Chernobyl- or Three Mile Island-type disaster. It’s the sheer amount of waste that’s the problem. That waste is the cost of nuclear energy, and right now we really have no plan for where this type of waste should actually go. The best answer we’ve got at the moment is to stash it away in a mountain, put far underground, or jettison it off into the ether of outer space. It doesn’t take much thought to realize that putting the problem elsewhere and solving the problem altogether are entirely different courses of action.

So what do you think? Do you think natural gas or nuclear energy can really be considered clean?