As a physicist (with energy expertise) and a long time environmental activist, I have grown increasingly concerned about our deviant electrical energy path.
My belief is that technological decisions (i.e. those relating to energy) should be based on science. Instead we have the most impolitic situation where they are instead made to incur political favor. If you endorse energy policies contrived by lobbyists, then be happy and read no more.
One of my pet peeves is the indiscriminate bandying about of the term "renewable" energy. This is no academic annoyance as right now the US Senate is drafting up a national Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS).
The first version is an abomination that amounts to the biggest earmark in history (http://energy.senate.gov/public/_files/END09012_xml.pdf). Clearly the Democrats have yet to absorb President Obama's directive concerning science (http://tinyurl.com/ce73km).
In my view some of the main issues with it (and most state RPS's) are:
1 - all renewables are treated alike (i.e. wind power = solar = geothermal, etc.);
2 - any renewable is assumed to be better than most any conventional source (i.e. wind power is better than nuclear power);
3 - renewables are given credit for making significant environmental changes (i.e. wind power is promoted as the way to a carbon free future);
4 - the huge cost to taxpayers and ratepayers for renewable implementation is written of as the cost of "progress" or some other such platitude;
5 - the considerations of such stalwarts as grid reliability and dispatchability are now foreign concepts.
The problem with these five items is that they are ALL wrong -- but who cares? Our "representatives" are determined to pound this renewable square peg into the round electrical energy hole.
IMO one of the main reasons we are sliding into the energy ditch is that we are allowing those with political agendas (vs the scientists) to define some key energy terms -- like the word "renewable."
To my knowledge there is no legal definition as to what renewable means. The explanations proffered vary quite a bit. Technically all sources of power are renewable, just at different rates -- so the key difference between a renewable and non-renewable is the rate of replenishment.
That, in itself, should be a flag that this (in science terms) is a rather arbitrary and subjective definition. Who is to say what replenishment rate is good or bad, and on what basis?
Consider these typical definitions (http://tinyurl.com/dkugz):
"Renewable is an energy resource that is replaced rapidly by natural processes... A non-renewable is any resource that is not replaced in a reasonable amount of time (our lifetime, our children's lifetime, ...) and are thus considered 'used up' and not available to us again."
Such words as "rapidly" and "reasonable" are subjective and relative terms -- not scientific.
Another pivotal aspect ignored in these definitions is the fact that although a source (e.g. wind) may be quickly replenishable, it uses up other resources (e.g. land) that are not replenishable at all. We will run out of suitable land in the US for wind power sooner than we will run out of fossil fuels. Shouldn't the entire package be assessed as a whole?
Considering the variability, inadequacy and politicalness of its current iteration, there is some merit to just exterminating "renewable" from our vocabulary .
But nature abhors a vacuum, so for soundbite reasons, if we refuse to use renewable, then we should come up with a good replacement.
To me, then, these are the options:
1 - redefine "renewable" so that it makes more scientific sense, or
2 - if the term "renewable" is beyond rehabilitation, come up with a substitute.
Recently I posed this question to a group of energy experts. Interestingly, they were unanimous in their consensus that there was no hope in salvaging "renewable."
"Several years ago, I came to the conclusion that the word renewable, applied as a source of energy, was a pejorative -- and I treat it as such today (much as I do windmills and windfarms). These are all words bowdlerized of any positive meaning, designed by the craven to casually separate people from the contents of their wallets. And so, in my public comments, I always connect renewables with fraud. Rather than refine the definition, I move that we ridicule the very concept, Instead I recommend promoting the principle of our making decisions based on energy density, or something in that vein."
Another PhD energy expert said:
"When questioned on 'renewable' it is relatively simple to explain the First Law of Thermodynamics concerning conservation. Energy cannot be 'new,' thus cannot be 'renewed.' All we are doing is transforming one manifestation of energy into another -- and we should be doing it in a 'clean, non-polluting, preferably non-carbon-based' manner. This avoids (most times) the controversial subject of potential, unquantified global warming versus thermal equilibrium -- which is too long and too complex for most listeners."
"I normally use the phrases 'clean energy,' 'clean sources.' etc. but throw in the occasional 'non-polluting' and 'non-carbon-based'. This meets, rather more than less, my concerns as a scientist and as a 'green person.' Simplistic? - maybe. But a lot more accurate than 'renewable.'"
Anyway, the current leader of my unscientific poll is the term "clean." (The runnerup is "sustainable.")
What constitutes clean? My recommendation is that would include any power source that does not produce more than 10 gCeq/kWh in production of electricity [ref http://tinyurl.com/7tmy2].
Now don't get me wrong here. This word change doesn't nearly fix the situation -- it is just one small step back towards scientific footing. Clean (or sustainable) doesn't necessarily mean reliable, or dispatchable, or any of the other seven important criteria spelled out in my online energy presentation (http://www.slideshare.net/JohnDroz/energy-presentationkey-presentation).
The bottom line is that in this highly complex electrical energy area, we need to make decisions based on what is technically, economically and environmentally sound. "Renewable" doesn't adequately address any of these.
If you have a term that is more comprehensive in its description as to what electrical power sources should be, please volunteer it!