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Top Six Reasons We Need a Better Definition of Clean Energy

United States Senator Energy and Natural Resources Committee Chairman Bingaman (D-NM) has just introduced his clean energy standard legislation, and yes, it has every energy source in it, except energy efficiency. Can a clean energy standard include all energy sources - and should it?

(b) DEFINITIONS.— In this section: (1) CLEAN ENERGY.— The term ‘clean energy’ means electric energy that is generated — (A) at a facility placed in service after December 31, 1991, using — (i) renewable energy; (ii) qualified renewable biomass; (iii) natural gas; (iv) hydropower; (v) nuclear power; or (vi) qualified waste-to-energy;

I have immense respect for the Energy Committee Chairman, but alas, his bill should be roundly and soundly defeated for the following five reasons.

First, energy efficiency is included within many State Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and Clean Energy Standards (CES), and it should be. Amory Lovin’s aptly fashioned the word “negawatts” and analytical groups like ACEEE have issued many substantive reports showing it is always cheaper and cleaner to offset generation, than generate energy. To perform the same task with less energy (and water) should be a national priority and a primary goal of federal, state and local government energy policy.

If we want to compete in the global marketplace, we will never have labor rates equivalent with developing countries, and material inputs are now global commodities — so only better processes and lower inputs (energy and water) can enhance our U.S. competitive edge and it’s time we take it seriously.

Second, the portfolio of renewable energy resources is the next cleanest option if developed sustainably. In terms of air and water pollution, wastes, and greenhouse gas emissions:  geothermal, marine (freeflow hydropower, tidal, wave, ocean currents and thermal), solar (daylighting, concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, and solar thermal), wind, and waste heat (combined heat and power, cogeneration) are essentially emission free and have low-or-no water. Geothermal and CSP are utilizing heat engines (brayton, organic rankine cycle, and stirling) to turn thermal energy to power without water as well as newer approaches to utilize less water than standard power plants.

Third, biomass power and fuels, based on organic wastes that cannot be returned to the soil such as contaminated agricultural wastes, forest thinnings, and manures and litter  are clearly winners as well in terms of air and water pollution and the benign removal of waste.  Instead of leaving manure in open pools (pigs), litter piles (poultry), or in manure lots (cattle) and allowing this waste to degrade into methane  a 20 times+ more potent greenhouse gas  biomass can be a solid winner on all counts.

Fourth, natural gas has traditionally been the third leg of the energy triad, for in most cases, it is the cleanest of fossil fuels and integrates well with the future renewable and hydrogen economies. I still believe that it can serve that purpose.  However, over-ambitious fracking may put that vision in jeopardy.  Aside from bans due to earth tremors in certain areas of Ohio and Great Britain  the real threat is the copious use of water resources and some of the elements also dislodged by fracking as the 2011 Duke University study “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing (PDF)” below concluded.

Directional drilling and hydraulic-fracturing technologies are dramatically increasing natural-gas extraction. In aquifers overlying the Marcellus and Utica shale formations of northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York, we document systematic evidence for methane contamination of drinking water associated with shale-gas extraction.

In August 2012, EPA released its report on whether or not fracking had contaminated the groundwater or polluted wells and the Wind River in Wyoming. According to an article on, the “EPA emphasized that the findings are specific to the Pavillion area, noting that the specific type of fracking used there differed from fracking methods used elsewhere in regions with different geological characteristics. The fracking occurred below the level of the drinking water aquifer and close to water wells, the EPA said.” 

But more serious may be radiation in the fracking wastes. An article published in March 2011 in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette stated the following:

Wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling may contain unhealthy concentrations of radioactivity, and federal officials, researchers, the industry and the former head of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection have called for testing of drinking water sources and full disclosure of results.

The New York Times reported in a story Saturday that 116 of 179 Marcellus wells in Pennsylvania had high levels of radiation in wastewater samples and that wastewater discharges into rivers and streams were untested for radiation even though government agencies and the industry knew of the risks. The radiation is picked up by water used to hydraulically fracture the deep, 380 million-year-old shale layer and release the natural gas it holds

Fifth, all of the above pales in comparison with the carcinogens found in coal.  In February of 2011, the Environmental Integrity Project, together with Earth Justice and Physicians for Social Responsibility collaborated to release a report called “EPA’s Blind Spot: Hexavalent Chromium in Coal Ash.”  The West Virginia Register-Herald, which covered the report, wrote:

Hexavalent chromium is a known human carcinogen and can be highly toxic even in small doses. According to the report, the Environmental Protection Agency found that coal ash leaches chromium in great excess of EPA thresholds, and the chromium that does leach from coal ash is nearly 100 percent hexavalent chromium…


Coal ash is a byproduct of coal combustion, created when coal is burned in power plants to produce energy. According to an article in Scientific American that cites Oak Ridge National Laboratory researcher Dana Christensen, ‘the fly ash emitted by a power plant — a byproduct from burning coal for electricity — carries into the surrounding environment 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power plant producing the same amount of energy.’

In testimony before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works Wednesday, EPA Administration Lisa Jackson acknowledged the cancer-inducing effects of hexavalent chromium and told Congress the EPA would be working to reduce chromium exposure.

‘Recent animal testing data have demonstrated carcinogenicity associated with ingesting chromium-6 in drinking water,’ Jackson said. ‘That discovery, along with a recent report by the Environmental Working Group that found elevated levels of chromium-6 in more than 30 public water systems, has heightened public concern about the presence of chromium-6 in drinking water.’

In addition to chromium, coal ash also may contain arsenic, lead, cadmium, mercury, selenium and other dangerous chemicals.?Hexavalent chromium was made famous by the environmental activist Erin Brockovich, a woman who sued Pacific Gas and Electric for alleged contamination of drinking water with the chemical.”

The Oak Ridge National Lab study by Alex Gabbard goes further, stating that “although not as well known, releases from coal combustion contain naturally occurring radioactive materials--mainly, uranium and thorium.”

The ORNL study states:

Former ORNL researchers J. P. McBride, R. E. Moore, J. P. Witherspoon, and R. E. Blanco made this point in their article "Radiological Impact of Airborne Effluents of Coal and Nuclear Plants" in the December 8, 1978, issue of Science magazine. They concluded that Americans living near coal-fired power plants are exposed to higher radiation doses than those living near nuclear power plants that meet government regulations. ….The fact that coal-fired power plants throughout the world are the major sources of radioactive materials released to the environment has several implications. It suggests that coal combustion is more hazardous to health  …..It also suggests that if radiation emissions from coal plants were regulated, their capital and operating costs would increase, making coal-fired power less economically competitive.

The idea that coal, even with carbon capture and storage, is perceived as “clean” is beyond reason when the totality of carcinogens, heavy metals, and other kinds of immune suppressors and hormone imitators are considered.

And sixth, nuclear energy is the other prime candidate vying for the “clean” designation only meaning “low in carbon.” Aside from the alarming regulatory history of nuclear outlined in my previous columns, the hazards associated with modern uranium mining and nuclear waste storage are highly disturbing

The EPA’s website also tries to evaluate number of uranium mine waste sites in the United States and states “there is no exact total of these wastes. However we do have estimates based on U.S. Geological Survey data.” The EPA goes on to say that “according to USGS estimates, the approximately 4,000 open pit and underground mines in their database generate about three billion metric tons. (The volume of waste (including overburden) produced by open-pit mining is approximately 45 times greater than wastes produced from underground mining.) Given the larger number of mine locations identified by EPA, the amount of waste rock is likely to be higher.”

Uranium mining is done using either open pit or underground operations. Currently, approximately 75 percent of Canadian uranium ore comes from open-pit operations. Once mined, the ore is trucked or pumped as slurry to the milling facility. At the mill, the ore is finely ground and mixed in either a highly acidic or alkaline solution to extract the uranium. Finally, the uranium is concentrated and dried into mixed uranium oxides called “yellowcake.” The tailings or wastes left by the milling process consist of ground rock particles, water, and millings, chemicals, and radioactive and otherwise hazardous. In fact, up to 85 percent of the radiological elements contained in the original uranium ore end up in the tailings.

Perennial anti-nuclear Harvey Wasserman laments in the Huffington Post:

In Florida, botched multi-billion-dollar repairs to the Crystal River reactor near Tampa have forced a brutal grassroots battle over soaring electric rates which must be approved by increasingly beleaguered state regulators. It is highly likely that reactor will never operate again. 

At Pilgrim, Mass., is strongly intervening against a license extension. Both remaining reactors are currently shut at California's San Onofre (Unit One there also went down long ago), where grassroots activists---including local surfers---are in pitched battle against re-opening. Ohio's Davis-Besse is having its containment dome sliced for the fourth time. Two reactors in Nebraska are still recovering from major flooding.

If you took my interdisciplinary course at The George Washington University on sustainable energy, you would have the list of 24 studies over the last few years that show that the world and the United States could meet “most or all” its energy from the existing, commercially-available blend of high-value energy efficiency and renewable energy.

Bottom line  a federal clean energy standard should reward the energy sources that are clean – energy efficiency, waste heat, and the entire portfolio of renewable energy technologies  all which meet the “clean” imprimatur. And we should start now in the 21st century, not 1991 in the 20th century. The “everything is clean” approach makes nice political showmanship but horrible public policy.

The renewable energy and efficiency trade associations, think tanks, or advocacy groups should not endorse the Senate proposal.

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