Renewables are not equally clean. Time to separate good from bad.
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To date, President Trump has not explicitly addressed the issue of renewable energy nor rescinded previous executive orders defining renewables.

Moreover, he hasn't asked Congress or state houses to repeal legislation behind the push for replacement of fossil fuels with renewable and alternative sources of primary energy.   

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Nor has the Trump administration articulated a clear position on Greenhouse Gas Emissions (GHGs) and Climate Change. Even if EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is to pull back from the Obama administration strategy of regulating GHGs as a pollutant, that still leaves intact many rules and much legislation promoting renewable and clean energy at the federal and state levels, like Executive Order 13693.

 

EO.13693 Sec. 19 (v) defines “Renewable electric energy…” as “…energy produced by solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean (including tidal, wave, current, and thermal), geothermal, geothermal heat pumps, microturbines, municipal solid waste, or new hydroelectric generation capacity achieved from increased efficiency or additions of new capacity at an existing hydroelectric project”.

Alternative energy is defined in Sec. 19 (c) as:  “…energy generated from technologies and approaches that advance renewable heat sources, including biomass, solar thermal, geothermal, waste heat, and renewable combined heat and power processes; combined heat and power; small modular nuclear reactor technologies; fuel cell energy systems; and energy generation, where active capture and storage of carbon dioxide emissions associated with that energy generation is verified”.   

Similarly, 42 U.S. Code § 15852(b), which defines “renewable energy” as “…electric energy generated from solar, wind, biomass, landfill gas, ocean, geothermal, municipal solid waste, or new hydroelectric generation,” states any energy resource that has recently originated from the sun and intermediate solar energy forms, such as wind, ocean thermal gradients, ocean currents and waves, hydropower, etc., count as renewable. 

At the agency, state and local government level, similar definitions are hard-coded into legislation and regulations. Overturning all these federal and state rules and regulations is unlikely to be a Trump administration priority. Can existing laws and regulations perform more efficiently and effectively?

Renewable resources appear to have the attribute of being either “constantly replenished” or renewed naturally in a reasonably short period of time. Yet, the timeline for renewal or replenishment is not typically defined.    

Some jurisdictions, like Canada (NRCan), define the timeline as “within a human lifespan” without defining that duration. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates the human lifespan to be 71.4 years at birth (2015).

Renewable energy definitions presume that fossil fuels are resources that have much longer time horizons for renewal, or are finite and will eventually run out sooner than renewables.

The fallacy in this approach is that renewable energy is often not limited by the resource itself (wind, solar, hydro, etc.), but by the systemic limitations further downstream, be they technical, economic or market potential.       

Renewable energy resources require devices and infrastructure to gather, concentrate, transform and transmit energy in usable forms for use by a modern industrial economy. Machines and devices require many non-renewable, or partially-renewable, inputs, like metals or synthetic materials derived from non-renewable sources, like petroleum.  

The limiting factor for renewability is not the availability of renewable energy resources, per se, but the availability of the scarcest factor with limited substitutes in the above pathway.     

Conversely, finite fossil resources, like oil and gas, have seen continual replenishment of reserves as newer technologies, like steam assisted gravity drainage, horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracking are developed that expand supply.

Renewable energy systems differ widely in their environmental impact. Solar cells require sizable energy inputs to manufacture. Photovoltaic cells originating from China mostly utilize coal-fired electricity with high level of GHGs that is revealed by lifecycle emission assessments. 

There are currently no uniform standards for assessment of the degree to which a “renewable” energy resource is indeed renewable. Nor is there a standardized life cycle assessment methodology for emissions from “clean” energy sources as compared to their “fossil” fuel counterparts and competitors. There are substantial differences in GHG emissions within and between categories that can vary greatly by facility and location.

Today, investors and customers for solar energy cannot readily distinguish between the benefits of using higher cost photovoltaic panels primarily made with clean hydroelectric power versus coal-fired electricity, because both as equally “clean” and “renewable” in law.  

Similarly, absence of standardized life cycle assessments, reporting and audits makes it impossible for consumers and investors to balance costs and outcomes to economically achieve high levels of renewability and cleanliness in their energy choices.     

What is needed is a dynamic, living, breathing assessment system that captures the changing flow and ebb of “renewability” and “cleanliness” as markets, technologies, entrepreneurs, innovators, etc., engage in a complex dance in a market economy.      

America can meet this need and become the world leader in defining standards and specifications for both renewability and cleanliness for primary energy production:  a Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) for renewable and clean energy.

The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) historically led the development and modernization of accounting for fossil fuel energy. The SEC’s Oil and Gas Reporting rules greatly improved the transparency and efficiency of fossil fuel markets. The SEC can play a similar role for renewable and clean energy.

Investors will benefit from SEC rules that relay accurate information that enables informed financial choices. Governments at all levels will more easily avoid inferior “green energy” decisions and focus on programs that give the best value for the tax dollar.  

Individuals and small communities will focus on the most efficient way to meet their energy needs, while paying for the degree of “renewability” and “cleanness” that they can afford.

Creating a level assessment field for all primary energy sources based on their degree of renewability and cleanliness will revolutionize federal and state regulatory and legislative actions, moving from their present “presumptive good vs. bad”, “renewables vs. fossil” to informed and granular judgments about the merits of each case.  

The reporting rules will allow legislation and regulations to be updated and improved as standardized data become available and are appropriately included.

 

Jatin Nathwani is the founder and executive director of the Waterloo Institute of Sustainable Energy (WISE). Danny Lam is a research associate at WISE. Maurice Dusseault is a professional engineer who teaches geological engineering at the University of Waterloo. Royden A. Fraser is a professor in the Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering Department at the University of Waterloo.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.