Guest Author – Mary Spruill, Executive Director, National Energy Education Development Project (NEED)
In my work, I am often asked if there is really any such thing as clean energy. Every day there is a news story, a press release from a company or government agency talking about clean energy. Even President Obama talked about clean energy in the 2011 State of the Union Speech. In the 600 or so workshops the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED) provides for teachers each year, we field constant questions about what clean energy is and how can we define it.
Truthfully, energy is complex. Energy is complicated. But there are some things about energy that are simple. Energy cannot be created nor destroyed. It can be transformed. It is in that transformation that we harness the energy we use to heat and cool our homes, to generate electricity to power our houses, apartment buildings, office buildings, and factories, and to fuel our vehicles to move products and ourselves from place to place. All of the energy we use requires that transformation to make it do work. That’s what energy is – the ability to do work.
The use of energy requires us to make some pretty complicated decisions. For over 20 years, my experience with NEED and the people with whom we work has shown me that although some energy decisions may seem to be simple, they can be very complex. Each decision must take into account economic, environmental, public perception and, often, available technologies and capabilities. With all of this as background, is it really possible to say that there is a perfectly clean energy source? Perhaps it is possible to say that an energy source is CLEANER than another, but saying that any energy source is clean really doesn’t tell the full story. All energy sources have advantages and disadvantages. That is why energy decisions require a deep understanding of energy.
Development of oil and natural gas requires drilling into the earth on land, or below our oceans, refining and processing the oil and gas, and moving the resulting products to markets to use them. (pipeline, tanker truck, tanker ship, barge and more) When we use oil and natural gas we burn it releasing carbon dioxide and other emissions. Developing wind requires decisions on land use, the mining and development of materials to build wind turbines, the trucking and shipping of the components (the tower, nacelles, blades) to the site for installation and the running of power lines to be able to move the electricity generated from the wind to market. Solar requires tools to capture the radiant and thermal energy. Photovoltaic cells are made from mined materials that must be manufactured into the solar cells we see on our houses, road-side signage, and elsewhere. Large-scale solar takes a lot of land to produce large amounts of electricity. Then power lines must be put in place to move that electricity too.
I often hear representatives of one energy source saying how different their energy source is from others. In reality, some of the fundamentals are the same. We have to move the energy we need to where we need it, electricity over power lines (needed equipment to harness the wind or the sun) or pipelines to move oil and natural gas. That movement has an impact on the environment too. When wind developers plan a wind farm, they often run into the same challenges that oil and gas developers deal with and that’s how best to use the land and to return it to as close to its original state as possible. When native species of plants and animals are considered, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, hydropower, coal, uranium, oil and natural gas, all can have an impact on local plants and animals. So, all decisions have to take that impact into consideration during the planning process.
Certainly, some energy sources do not have to be mined or drilled for, but the equipment needed to harness them comes from mined and drilled resources. Some energy sources really are better for certain needs like bringing more work per unit of energy than others. Some sources require us to overhaul our energy infrastructure like the power grid and pipelines or even the cars we choose and how we power them. Some require us to find plenty of land to install the equipment and then the power lines to move the electricity to where we need it.
Making a clean energy decision is making the choice, when possible, to use less energy by conserving it and being more efficient. When you choose to turn the lights off when you leave the room, walk or carpool instead of driving alone, you choose to make the cleanest energy decision possible. Energy – how we produce it, use it, and conserve it are based on our personal energy decisions.
If students in today’s classrooms can understand two things it would be, one, that all energy sources have advantages and disadvantages and that a specific energy need may be best met by one specific energy source and, two, that the decision making process requires energy knowledge, an understanding of technological capabilities, and the willingness to always look for a better way, a cleaner way, to meet our energy needs.
Learn more about energy and energy sources.