What is green? Sure, it’s a color. It’s a social movement. It has something to do with the environment; and generally, when we talk about someone being green or living a green lifestyle, we assume that the individual shuns plastic shopping bags, drinks wheatgrass smoothies, and sports Birkenstocks regardless of the climate. Beyond that harsh assessment, it’s difficult to put one’s finger on a concrete meaning of being green. My aim is to attempt to articulate a definition of “green” and more specifically- what it means for an energy form to be “green.”
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Dr. Patrick Moore, the founder of Greenpeace and the Co-Chair of the CasEnergy Coalition. During a lecture, Dr. Moore identified four terms used and misused in the context of energy; clean, renewable, sustainable, and green. Clean describes forms of energy, like nuclear, that do not produce CO2.
Renewable means that a given resource can be replenished in a fairly short period of time. In other words, renewable implies that it is possible to ‘restock or refill’ a given resource. In terms of energy, burning wood is a renewable form of energy because trees can be planted to replace those cut down in a given year.
Sustainable implies that a resource can be maintained long in to the future at the present rate of use. Something that is sustainable is not necessarily renewable. For example, nuclear energy is a sustainable form of energy because the quantities of natural uranium available in the earth will make nuclear energy viable thousands of years into the future. However, nuclear is not renewable in the most basic sense because we cannot create new uranium supplies within the earth. By now you may notice that each of these terms is relative and has its nuances. I’m sure you could argue that nuclear is renewable if you factor in reprocessing but that’s a topic for another article- I’m trying to keep things simple.
Green requires a more longwinded response. It’s more of a marketing slogan than concrete concept. Commercialization makes it more difficult to find meaning in a term like green. It’s become clouded by marketing campaigns such that all anyone comprehends are the tidbits picked up in popular culture and on shopping trips to local health food grocers. There are green cars these days. Does that mean they’re clean? Perhaps not–But increasingly these two terms are being linked. In fact, it seems as though considered renewable, clean, or sustainable is automatically touted as green. I now realize half way through this diatribe that I may not be able to come to a formal definition of green. According to Dr. Moore, “Green is a concept. It’s like art- it can’t be defined.” Ha! I really like that assessment. Attempting to find a definition for green feels similar to standing in front of a large work of modern art and then being asked to describe what I perceive to be the artist’s purpose. It’s hard at best and near impossible when you look at it from a less optimistic point of view. Ultimately, I think that the commercial marketing slogan of green has been used when a product is “pro-Earth.” Whether a product is made from recycled materials, manufactured locally, or constructed such that it decomposes within a year– the product’s end goal is a reduction in the negative impacts on the Earth. From this standpoint, a commodity can be considered green if it in some way reduces harm or damage inflicted towards the environment. This is still a wishy-washy definition but it at least gives us something tangible to work with.
Now that we prescribed a meaning to green as a social concept, it becomes necessary to identify green forms of energy. If a green form of energy is simply one that aims to reduce its impact on the environment, then nuclear is certainly a green form of energy. Is wind? Is solar? How about hydroelectricity? They all seem to be if you pick your argument accordingly. It’s important to dissect what a utility means by marketing its energy as green. Do they mean that it’s sustainable? Do they mean it’s renewable? If it is renewable or sustainable, is it still free of greenhouse gases? The homework is ultimately left up to the consumer.
I believe that clean and sustainable are the key words to look for when assessing various forms of energy. However, practical considerations enter into the argument; it’s important that energy be reliable and affordable, in addition to clean and sustainable. Nuclear is the only clean and sustainable form of energy that is capable of reliably meeting the needs of society. I don’t propose for all energy to come from nuclear- there should be a mix. However, I do want to challenge individuals who view nuclear energy in a negative light to read more on the subject. It’s incredibly harmful to reject or embrace an issue prior to fully understanding the topic at hand. There are benefits and risks associated with every form of energy; it’s when we weigh cost with benefit that we arrive at a meaningful opinion. Likewise, I encourage consumers to approach ‘green’ with skepticism in order to decipher precisely what benefits a product may offer.
*For more information about sustainable forms of energy visit Dr. Patrick Moore’s website: http://greenspirit.com/
*To learn more about nuclear energy visit the Nuclear Energy Institute at http://nei.org or if you’re in the mood for light reading, check out the Nuclear Literacy Project’s fact page:http://nuclearliteracy.org/