A question that critical thinkers interested in energy policy debates should think about is the fuzzy definition of “renewable energy.” It is a term whose definition shifts depending on the goals of the person or publication using the term. That feature should cause truth seeking people to avoid its use. At Atomic Insights, we prefer the term “unreliables.” For some reason, that tends to offend certain promoters.
Thermodynamically, no units of energy are reusable [renewable]. Once a unit of energy is consumed to do work or add heat, it is gone forever. The forces that came together to provide the unit of energy continue to exist and may provide additional units of energy in the future, but that is also true of fuel sources like petroleum, coal, and even uranium.
One clear indication that “renewable” is simply a warm-sounding marketing term is the way that power from large hydroelectric dams is either in or out. If a publication or promoter wants to claim that renewable energy has already captured a significant share of a particular market or that it is more important that a politically unpopular energy source like coal or nuclear, they will include the contributions of large hydroelectric dams.
If promoters want government action — in the form of quotas or subsidies — aimed at increasing “renewable” energy in the future, they will claim that large hydro does not count towards Renewable Portfolio Standards or the Clean Power Plan and that it should not be eligible for any production or investment tax credits.
This early morning musing was stimulated by the following tweet from the Economist magazine.
— The Economist (@EconBizFin) August 10, 2015
The inclusion or exclusion of wood burning [aka biomass] as a “renewable” in energy production statistics and incentive programs is just as interesting and revealing, but that is another topic for another short post someday.