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When "Clean Energy" Isn't Clean

Obama's use of the term is misleading, dangerous, and ultimately destructive. It must be challenged.

Nicholas Mann

"Now, clean energy breakthroughs will only translate into clean energy jobs if businesses know there will be a market for what they're selling. So tonight, I challenge you to join me in setting a new goal: by 2035, 80% of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources. Some folks want wind and solar. Others want nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas. To meet this goal, we will need them all and I urge Democrats and Republicans to work together to make it happen." --President Barak Obama 

During the State of the Union address Tueday night, President Obama set forth an ambitious challenge that by 2035, 80% of America's electricity will come from clean energy sources.  To do this Congress must eliminate the generous subsidies given to the oil industry, and use the money to invest in tomorrow's energy. 

The idea behind this statement is right on.  The US needs to make a fundamental shift away from dirty energy to clean sources.  Leading that shift through innovation, research, and education will result in more jobs and a stronger economy to compete with a growing China and India in a changing world economy.  

Yet throwing around the phrase ‘clean energy' is misleading, especially in the manner it was defined last night.  The notion that nuclear power, coal, and natural gas are clean is not only incorrect, but jeopardizes our ability to achieve necessary long term reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.  The fashionable, yet hollow use of this so-called ‘clean energy' will only continue to exacerbate our climate crisis. 

What is ‘clean' energy, anyway, and what is ‘dirty' energy?  Last night, President Obama included nuclear, clean coal, and natural gas as sources of ‘clean' energy, but are they really?  I would say NO.  Clean energy needs to include the following characteristics:

  1. Does not create environmental or public health dangers in extraction or use
  2. Be economically feasible without large tax-payer subsidies, and able to answer a demand in the energy market
  3. Be renewable- able to replenish itself naturally
  4. Carbon free

The problems associated with energy sources that fall under the label of ‘clean' are numerous.  Nuclear reactors emit toxic radiation into the air and water, and cannot compete with cheaper and cleaner forms of energy without billions in government subsidies and financial assurances.  Clean coal technologies such as CCS are unproven and do nothing to reduce the environmental and health impacts that result from the mining process.  Natural gas releases harmful pollutants, and the extracting techniques can be extremely harmful to local communities.  Clearly, these forms of energy do not meet the criteria of ‘clean energy'. 

By promoting these harmful energy sources as ‘clean' we risk not only endangering the health and livelihood, of many Americans, but we undermine the development and deployment of truly clean renewable energy that is financially viable and technologically sound.  The inclusion of nuclear, coal, and natural gas into a national energy plan will limit the maturation of wind, solar, geothermal, and other renewable sources, which are ultimately preferable because truly clean energy is the only dependable and environmentally safe way to fuel future energy needs.    

Pursuing a ‘clean energy' standard may garner more political support in Congress these days, but that should not implore us to settle for less.  If this is truly our generation's ‘Sputnik moment' we must take the opportunity to push for policies and incentives that will promote clean renewable energy sources.  If we do this we will be strengthening our security, protecting our planet, and revitalizing our economy long into the future.  

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Nicholas Mann is Legislative Assistant for Energy and Environment at the Friends Committee on National Legislation in Washington, DC. His email:

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