What Kind of "Clean" Energy Will Repower the US Economy?

While running for office in 2008, now-President Barack Obama made much of his plans to re-power the US economy with clean energy. Since being sworn in as president Obama has continued to talk about clean energy and low-carbon fuels—but his words on the subject have often been long on vaguely expressed desires and short on specific dates and goals. That’s why during the State of the Union Address it was nice to hear the president put some of those specific numbers out on the table. Last night President Obama made what could turn out to be the most important pledge of his career, setting a goal of generating 80% of US energy from clean sources by 2035.

Still it will once again be the details of how the president and members of Congress make good on this goal which determine whether Obama’s call to action is remembered as an empty political promise soon abandoned, or the start of a journey that transforms the US economy. Just as important as figuring out how we achieve the 80% goal by 2035 is deciding what exactly constitutes “clean” energy.

If by 2035 a full 80% of the nation’s energy comes from truly clean sources like wind, solar, and geothermal power, it would indeed be a huge victory for the fight against climate change and fossil fuel dependence. Though it will be a challenge to get there, this is a realistic goal. Building the renewable energy infrastructure to power 80% of the economy would create millions of jobs, help launch new industries in many parts of the country, and go a long way toward what’s needed to prevent the worst impacts of climate change. However all these achievements will be diluted if the term “clean energy” is allowed to encompass energy sources that really aren’t very clean at all.

I addition to renewables like wind and solar, Obama mentioned three other energy sources that might be up for inclusion in an 80% renewable energy standard: “clean coal,” nuclear power, and natural gas. None of these energy sources is renewable, and none can be considered green energy either. “Clean coal” is an oxymoronic term coined by industry PR machines—a concept that’s technologically infeasible on a large scale and likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. The environmental, health, and safety problems surrounding nuclear energy shouldn’t need re-hashing here. Nuclear power isn’t green, and meanwhile it’s also very expensive.

Then there’s natural gas. Unlike clean coal natural gas really exists—and it’s much cheaper to build a gas plant than a nuclear power station. Yet natural gas isn’t a clean fuel source either: while it’s cleaner than coal or oil, it is still a fossil fuel and emits about half as much carbon as coal when burned. If natural gas supplies 80% of US energy by 2035, it will result in only half the climate benefits of a transition to truly 80% renewables.

As is usually the case with lofty goals in energy politics, the real work consists of ironing out the details. The US should indeed strive to obtain 80% of its energy from clean sources by 2035. But that figure shouldn’t include non-green energy like nuclear power, “clean coal,” and natural gas.

Photo credit: Nick Engelfried