The words we choose to use nowadays can have a profound effect on what we actually are trying to say. This is especially the case when discussing new types of energy technologies that have been emerging over the past decade. When one person thinks “clean” energy, another may think “green” energy, while another will think “sustainable” energy. But do these words and phrases all have the same meaning? Nope.
The use of these words have very different connotations, and people are beginning to acknowledge the differences among them. President Obama, for example, chooses to use the word “clean” when discussing his energy policy. But what does this word really mean? And what do words like renewable, alternative, green, and sustainable mean?
Sustainable energy is the supply of energy that meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. Though this usually includes renewable resources, the fact of any energy being fully “sustainable” is certainly up for debate.
Alternative energy is any source of power that is not the mainstream form of energy, which would presently be oil. Something alternative could be anything from hydroelectric, to wind, to nuclear.
Renewable energy is any sort of energy that comes from a resource that is in nearly limitless supply, like sunlight, wind, rain, tides, and geothermal heat. It emerged into the political scene after solar and wind companies wanted to somehow separate themselves from nuclear power.
Clean energy covers a wider range of sources than renewable energy does, as some non-renewable resources like clean coal, natural gas, and nuclear power are technically forms of clean energy. In short, it is any kind of energy source that does not have detrimental effects to the environment. However, it allows the use of certain methods, like clean coal, that would not be accurately defined by other terms (ie, renewable).
Though all of these words have different meanings and cannot be seen as interchangeable, at least one similarity exists. All of these words can be and have been highly politicized at various moments throughout our political history. Though “clean” is the popular word at the moment, as it is short and business-friendly, “alternative” emerged in the 1970s, and “renewable” was a hot term in the 1980s. All these words are still rather widely used, but their uses have hidden connotations. When President Obama discusses his “clean energy standard,” he can include the use of technologies like clean coal, one that would not considered “renewable.”
These terminologies can be very tricky, as some technologies, like ethanol, could be considered “alternative” and “renewable” but not necessarily “sustainable,” or any other combination. Thus, it is very important that we are mindful of the way that we and others use these terms. The question that remains is whether and how our use of these words will effect the energy industry.