The American Nuclear Society posted an article entitled How a nuclear victory at COP27 started with a teen and a text reporting on the wonderful story of Ia Aanstoot. This is the 17-year old Swedish highschool student who effectively saved the day for nuclear at COP27 by alerting a WhatsApp chat group with the right people in it, that the final language being used by the COP27 negotiating team for its agreement used the term “renewables” rather than “clean energy” and so excluded consideration of nuclear.
Through a chain of texts and resulting prompt action by senior US officials which were relayed back to the negotiating room, a potential clean energy disaster was averted. Given that there was a quick fix, it seems that the whole threatened exclusion problem arose less because of some deliberately nefarious effort by negotiators to exclude nuclear but rather was due to misguided if casual usage of the word “renewables.” The good news is that, as far as COP27 showed, nuclear energy is sitting at the clean energy table again.
The bad news is that many people, including top negotiators, don’t think about the implications of their use of the this word. If nothing else, this story highlights the confusion and potential pitfalls caused by using “renewable,” which is a form of jargon, rather than what is really meant. Some folks use this particular term to cause confusion and some use it because they are confused. In the COP27 case, the use appears to have been inadvertent. Still it seems wise to point out how use of this particular word causes confusion, problems and contributes to our inability to make good climate decisions.
We need “Clean” energy to address Climate Change
When it comes to choosing which types of energy technology to prioritize and build in order to address climate, we need to stay focused on low-carbon sources, or what we now call “clean” energy. Many people may not realize that all of what is “renewable” is not “clean.”
Renewable energy is defined to focus on types of energy that come from “sources that cannot be depleted or which naturally replenish,” an appealing concept but actually a red herring with respect to carbon emissions. Clearly, some types of renewables are low and non-carbon-emitting energy sources, such as wind and solar. But some renewables are highly emitting sources of energy, namely bioenergy, which includes burning ancient forests, also called biomass energy.
Technically, under the proper conditions and given hundreds of years, forests will grow back. But this is not going to happen in the timeframe which matters to humanity. We have an urgent problem and need to halve global emissions by 2030 and eliminate emissions entirely by 2050. We can’t afford to either lose more forests or wait for trees to grow. Thus, what really matters is knowing whether or not there are carbon emissions that come a source of energy and not whether it might eventually be replenished, even if too late to matter.
We can get this information by looking at the carbon-intensity of energy. We consider low-carbon-intensity “clean” and high-carbon-intensity “dirty.” Unfortunately, many simply assume that all renewables are “clean” but that’s not the case. Bioenergy emits as much carbon as fossil fuels. People applaud our progress when they hear that the percentage of renewables is growing. Yet, according to Bioenergy International, bioenergy produced more than 2/3rds of the energy labelled “renewable.” And that generates high levels of emissions, so this is actually not progress towards emissions reductions.
Lately, the large and growing bioenergy industry has been seen as contributing massively to deforestation. Yet, bioenergy has the burnish of appearing to be “green” because it’s made the political cut and is included as “renewable.” This means that companies cutting down trees have benefitted from the subsidies and incentives intended to increase clean energy. Fortunately, many are starting to be more discerning and are specifically excluding ecologically-damaging types of bioenergy as unsustainable and not worthy of prioritization with climate-focused subsidies.
Politics, lobbying and powerful ideologic preferences are what have brought the term “renewable” into vogue in the first place. This also means that what’s included as renewable differs from place to place. California specifically excludes large hydro power but includes small hydropower stations. Not because large hydro emits more carbon or doesn’t rely on the renewing resource of rain but rather because California policymakers decided dams posed too great an ecologic impact and didn’t want to prioritize building more large dams. In other places, renewables includes large hydro. The fact that the definition of what’s renewable varies from place to place, contributes to confusion and lack of clarity. When folks in California hear that there are Canadian provinces running almost entirely on renewable energy, they may think that means they’ve succeeded in building out lots of wind and solar. In fact, it’s predominantly large hydro—which isn’t counted as “renewable” in California.
Nuclear’s Contributions to Clean Energy are Sidelined
The biggest problem by far with using the term renewable, however, is that it is invariably defined to exclude nuclear power. This causes the entire nuclear industry—which for decades has produced more clean energy than all other low-carbon sources combined—to be discounted and even sometimes excluded. Not surprising since nuclear has long been maligned and even demonized. Even so, the omission of nuclear as a renewable energy source, whether intentional or not, causes significant problems for those trying to use good data to address climate change.
We cannot make good decisions about how to invest in new energy generation if we don’t get good information about where our clean energy is coming from. Most energy agencies now include reports on levels of Renewables, because they are politically potent. They don’t create reports based on carbon intensity (such as by grouping the low-carbon energy technologies and the high-carbon energy technologies). Thus, people are not shown that their nuclear power plants are contributing to the clean energy being produced. This may induce them to think that nuclear is carbon-emitting—which it isn’t. They will think biofuels are a good thing for the climate—they aren’t. They will also think we have less clean energy than we actually do and agree to pay for more renewables. In certain areas, nuclear power plants are not even credited with producing carbon-free energy that counts towards the region’s clean energy goals! Which explains why folks (like in Downstate New York) are willing to allow craven politicians (like former Governor Cuomo) to shut down perfectly good nuclear power plants (like Indian Point). In short, the focus on “renewables” also produces misleading data.
New York is a perfect example. New York’s Independent System Operator, NYISO (whose stated vision is “Working together with stakeholders to build the cleanest, most reliable electric system in the nation”) provides stakeholders with two types of pie charts on its Real-Time Energy Dashboard: “All Fuels” and “Renewables.” You can see all of the types of energy that contribute to the fuel mix powering the state in the sample chart on the left but the chart doesn’t reflect carbon intensity, so you won’t be able to see which types of energy are contributing to climate change and which aren’t. (Click charts to enlarge.)
NYISO’s second chart, Renewables, also doesn’t show carbon intensity or provide information about what’s “clean” or not. This subset includes hydro, wind and “other renewables” (shown to include solar, methane, refuse and wood). In this example, hydro appears to be the largest source of clean energy for the state. Anyone could easily interpret these two charts to think that the first shows all types of energy and second shows those that are “green” (i.e. “clean”‘.) This of course is wrong and misleading. All the types of energy shown in the green color are not “green,” low-carbon sources. Additionally, the second chart omits showing the largest source of New York’s clean energy generation. Shame on you, NYISO. Rate-payers deserve to be shown all of New York’s low-carbon energy. Your job is to deliver less jargon and more facts! Such a chart would make it very clear that nuclear energy was producing the majority of New York’s clean energy, like the below mock up created by the Climate Coalition (and explored in an article called “NYISO’s Deceptive Reports“):
New York is not alone in producing deceptive reports that mislead viewers and also serve to undermine support for nuclear energy. Most state system operators follow this same pattern. These professionals are all aware of the climate crisis and the importance of educating people about sources of clean energy—but they are under political constraints. It seems oblivious, if your goal is “building the cleanest and most reliable grids” then what people need are reports which show “Emitting/DIrty” energy vs “Non-Emitting/Clean” energy types. These agencies know that Petroleum, Natural Gas, Coal and Bioenergy (biofuels/biowaste/biomass, etc) emit carbon at very high levels. They also know that Nuclear, Large Hydro, Small Hydro, Wind, Solar and Geothermal have significantly lower emissions attributed to them and so do not substantially contribute to climate change, regardless of your politics. Yet even the US Energy Information Agency fails to provide data in a useful format that avoids jargon and provides an accurate picture of how well we are doing addressing climate change. Take this chart for example:
The EIA helpfully groups Fossil Fuels and Renewables together but doesn’t show what’s actually clean energy, so we know how well we are doing reducing emissions. Again, a more useful presentation would be one centered around carbon emissions rather than jargon. Here’s the same exact data organized by Nucleation Capital in a way that reflects CO2 emissions. It’s much easier to see the decarbonization achieved in these 12 years:
When I contacted the EIA and asked whether they had any reports that just show energy generation based upon relative impact on climate, I was told “we do not categorize energy sources subjectively as clean or dirty.” Hmm, why not?
This problem reflects persistant nuclear prejudice and the political popularity of renewables, despite their increasingly obvious poor performance at reducing emissions. This was the gist of a study that was published by Atte Harjanne and Janne M. Korhonen in 2018 entitled “Abandoning the concept of renewable energy.” They write: “In politics, business and academica, renewable energy is often framed as the key solution to the global climate challenge. We, however, argue that the concept of renewable energy is problematic and should be abandoned in favor of more unambiguous conceptualization . . . [as] the key problems the concept of renewable energy has in terms of sustainability, incoherence, policy impacts, bait-and-switch tactics and generally misleading nature.”
Again, it is important to distinguish between those who don’t like the types of energy labelled as “renewable,” and what we are suggesting here. We find that use of the term “renewable” is misleading with respect to the metrics that matter the most to the public and policymakers. The debate about whether or not we should be using solar, wind or biofuels is not what we are concerned with here. Those are worthy debates which endeavor to look at whether or not the amount of land, mined materials, manufacturing, installation, ecosystem impacts, and all-in firming and transmission costs are worthwhile investments achieving both our decarbonization and grid reliability goals. We are not even questioning the merit of considering certain technologies as “renewable” when forests are being cut down with no guarantees of being replanted. We are only questioning the merit of grouping a limited set of technologies into a catch-all term that is used as a proxy for “clean energy,” when it’s not. Confusing jargon that elevates some technologies, excludes others without true reference to emissions is not helping us make good decisions towards our carbon-reduction goals.
We need clear and accurate information on climate impacts as we make increasingly large investments in transitioning our energy systems, commiting us to energy projects that will have 20, 30, 50-year and longer life-spans. For this, we definitely should avoid anything that hints at ambiguity and stick with what we mean: clean energy. So, in 2023, let’s work to reject use of the word “renewable” and demand that we focus on the distinction that does matter: carbon intensity. Without clear language and understanding, neither the public nor those negotiating our future world agreements can be expected to make good decisions.
1. “How a Nuclear Victory at COP27 Started with a Teen and a Text,” by Amelia Tiemann, published by NuclearNewswire, December 15. 2022.
2. “Renewable Energy Explained: Overview and Types” by EnergySage.
3. “Drax: UK power station owner cuts down primary forests in Canada” by Joe Crowley and Tim Robinson, published in BBC News, October 3, 2022
4. “Under dinosaurs reign, bioenergy the largest renewable energy source,” by Bioenergy International, December 10, 2020.
5. “Australia rejects forest biomass in first blow to wood pellet industry,” by Justin Catanoso, published by Mongabay, December 21, 2022.
6. New York Independent System Operator “Real-Time Dashboard.”
7. ResearchGate: “Abandoning the concept of renewable energy”, by Atte Harjanne and Janne M. Korhonen, December 2018.