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  • 08-Jan-11 Clean Energy and Sustainable Energy
  • SEPP Science Editorial #2011-2
    (in TWTW Jan 8, 2011)

    S. Fred Singer, Chairman and President , Science and Environmental Policy Project (SEPP)

    Clean Energy and Sustainable Energy

    Jan 8, 2011

    The concern about global warming, --oops, "climate change," oops, "climate disruption" -- has brought with it the use of phrases that need to be better defined.

    The term "clean energy" is one that bothers me most. No energy source is truly clean. Even hydroelectric energy requires the construction of dams, which affect sedimentation and cause other hydrological and ecological problems. Nuclear energy may be considered as clean until you become concerned about the mining of uranium and the disposal of spent fuel.

    But these days, the term "clean energy" is most often applied to coal-burning electricity generation. Conventionally, this had meant the removal of pollutants at the smoke stack after burning the coal in a boiler. These pollutants include the "criterion pollutants" defined in the Clean Air Act (CAA), principally sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulates. By law, all coal-burning plants must satisfy the emission criteria set up by the CAA.

    But because of the concern about global warming, however misplaced, "clean energy" is now assumed to exclude sources the emit CO2. But CO2 is clean by any existing standard: it is non-toxic, non-irritating, a colorless, transparent gas that exists naturally in the atmosphere -- and indeed in the human body. The term "clean energy" should have nothing to do with CO2. One should fight, therefore, against the misuse of this term until the legal issues are fully settled - which may not be for many years to come.

    "Sustainable" is another term that has become popular -- and in a sense, meaningless. We are asked to use energy in a sustainable way, when in fact the fossil fuels used to create energy are depleted and cannot be recovered (like for example, metal resources, especially silver and gold). Fossil fuels are not renewable, at least on a human time scale.

    While solar energy and wind energy are "sustainable" and while ethanol and biofuels are counted as "renewable", none of these are economic-unfortunately-or likely to become a major source of energy in the near future. Biofuels, like ethanol, have many problems attached to them, as even environmentalists now admit. Hydrogen is not an energy source by itself; it has to be manufactured.

    Nuclear energy occupies a curious position. It is quasi-sustainable, in the sense that we know how to derive electric power from nuclear reactors for many thousands of years. It is also renewable, in the sense that we know how to create fissionable material, i.e., nuclear fuel, from non-fissionable elements. Since nuclear energy is also reliable, economic, and fully available, it is likely to become the sustainable energy source of choice as fossil fuels become depleted.

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