What Is Clean Energy?

The definitions are at least as numerous as the energy and environmental lobbyists swarming the Capitol at the mention of new energy or climate legislation. Some tout the enormous untapped potential of energy efficiency and conservation, others push renewables as the highest priority. Some endorse nuclear as the climate silver bullet. Others insist that coal can be cleaned if only we throw enough money at it (dollars being green, after all). Dueling experts could keep us playing this game of musical chairs until doomsday, perhaps literally.

Let’s cut the music. We know how to do cost-benefit analyses. They’re a bulwark of conservative, risk-averse decision-making, and even Democrats have embraced the concept. So why not get serious about making our energy choices with a thorough, cradle to grave, lifecycle cost benefit analysis? Making rational choices on energy is, finally, a matter of the right data and the right algorithm, and I hear there are some Wall Street rocket scientists looking for work these days.

Energy comes from somewhere. Coal and uranium are mined, gas and oil are drilled. The “clean” technologies like solar, wind and energy efficiency also require resources. Foam insulation, whole house fans and smart thermostats used to be petroleum, chemicals, heavy metals and other components that EPA regulates. Computer chips and solar panels require silicon mines. Hydro requires dams and their many impacts. There are risks, mitigation techniques, and costs.

Conservation is the exception – the power that we choose not to use is impact-free. But there are certain costs that lead to conservation, like planting and maintaining urban trees, which keep building temperatures lower in summer so that less air conditioning is needed. In that case, creating the resource of the sheltering tree would be a wise investment, particularly if a city-wide lowered AC load meant that the electrical utility could put off its investment in new generating capacity or avoid the highest peak rates for natural gas. Everyone’s rates would stay lower, and the urban environment would be more pleasant because of the trees. Lower cost, greater benefit.

The cost-benefit analysis goes on. Construction has impacts. Fights have sprung up across the country over new coal plants, wind farms, nuclear plants, hydro projects, even solar arrays. Large electricity sources require new transmission infrastructure, which can lead to another set of conflicts. Land is needed. People are displaced. People living near the projects will incur costs to property values or perhaps their health. Some technologies, like nuclear or coal gasification with carbon sequestration, are many times more expensive than other options. We can count these costs.

Then there’s the energy production stage. The cleaner energy technologies harvest energy without fuel. Nuclear plants split atoms without emissions. At this point in the analysis, fossil fuels lose ground. Their emissions are damaging to human health and the planet, raising health care costs, causing lost work days, altering Earth’s atmosphere and impacting quality of life. Some of these costs are hard to quantify, but we can put numbers on many of them. On the flip side, the cost of cleaning up emissions is increasingly prohibitive. New “clean” technologies have yet to live up to their promise. Research and development costs are high, and most proposals so far would have taxpayers pay to develop new technologies for private profit. Whatever the cost, it goes into our analysis.

Next there’s the waste disposal stage. Coal ash. Nuclear waste. We know many of the challenges here, and how poorly we’ve dealt with them up to this point. Public health risks are significant, for many generations to come. We can make some statistically consistent calculations about probability of spills and leaks from storage sites, calculate the cost of mitigation, and add that to the balance sheet.

Finally, there’s the retirement phase. What will be the cost to society of repowering or powering down our energy infrastructure when its useful life is done? Which technologies will be easiest to retrofit? Will there be significant costs associated with taking down certain energy sources, or are we willing to live with white elephant coal plants and wind turbines scattered across the landscape?

Next we take all forms of taxpayer subsidy out of the mix. Every form of energy competes naked, without artificial support.

A final, critical point: to reach accurate conclusions, our analysis must also take into account the effect on generations to come, an imperative comprehensively developed by the Climate Legacy Initiative.

This is it, cradle to grave. The suite of technologies that provides the largest amount of power for the lowest overall cost, in terms of intergenerational socioeconomic, environmental, and all other forms of measurable cost and benefit, wins. We choose that power source or portfolio of sources as our energy solution of the future. Most of the data are already available, we just aren’t using them to inform rational energy policy. Our nation needs an energy policy that works this way, transparently and pro-actively, to choose the energy that will serve our needs today and most benefit our society for generations to come.

It’s that simple. (I’ll let you add the yeah right.)

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