AUSTIN, TEXAS – When President Barack Obama speaks about the fuels of the future, his term of choice is usually “clean energy.”
At the “Twitter Town Hall” last week, where people asked the president questions via Twitter, Mr. Obama referred to “clean energy” five times.
The only similar term he used was “alternative energy,” once. Other descriptors, like “renewable,” “sustainable” and “green,” were not mentioned.
All of these words may sound interchangeable, but experts say that they are not, quite. “Clean,” for example, can cover a broader array of energy sources than “renewable.” Mr. Obama, in a major speech on energy security this spring, called for 80 percent of the United States’ electricity in 2035 to come from “a wide range of clean energy sources,” in which he included natural gas, nuclear power and “clean coal.”
“You go back now and look at what’s being referred to as clean, and it’s all over the map,” said Russel Smith, executive director of the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, who argued that the term “clean” was too watered down.
Such things matter, Mr. Smith added, because “semantics plays a huge role in perception and policy and implementation and everything – it’s critical.”
In other words, if a particular energy source is billed as “clean,” the general public is much more likely to accept it, whatever its particulars.
In fact, “clean” is only the latest in a line of somewhat nebulous terms to be attached to the renewable energy industry. This reflects the cachet of being associated with small but well-regarded industries like solar and wind, though some argue that the more expansive terminology also facilitates greenwashing, or deceptive green marketing.
In the United States during the 1970s, most types of power that people today think of as “renewable” were considered “solar energies.” The logic was this: wind and wood chips would not exist without the sun (nor, of course, would solar rays).
A flyer in a 1982 issue of Spectra, a magazine of the Texas Solar Energy Society, even referred to oil as “old solar energy.” Oil, after all, is made from plants and animals that deteriorated millions of years ago and needed the sun to survive.
But “solar” as an umbrella term did not seem ideal, especially as the wind and solar businesses began to seek their own identities. The American Wind Energy Association, for example, was founded in 1974.
So as the 1970s progressed, the term “alternative” came into more common usage. It survives today, at places like the Alternative Energy Institute, which was formed in 1977 at West Texas A&M University.
But “alternative” could include nuclear, which was then in its heyday, and this worried people in the business of promoting sources like wind and solar.
The term “renewable” seemed like a better fit and thus emerged groups like the Texas Renewable Energy Industries Association, which was formed in 1984.
“How can you be against something that’s renewable? I mean, it’s like – how can you oppose it?” said Michael J. Osborne, an Austin resident who built Texas’s first wind farm in 1981, decades before the state came to lead U.S. wind-power production, and helped found the association.
Soon other terms arrived, like “sustainable,” “green” and, ultimately, the current favorite, “clean,” which is short, business-friendly and appealing, and also lends itself well to another catchphrase, “clean tech.”
In his March speech on energy security, Mr. Obama used “clean” or “cleaner” 24 times in the context of energy, “renewable” eight times and “alternative” nine times. “Green” and “sustainable” got zero mentions.
“It’s a purely political thing,” said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in California, explaining why Mr. Obama says he is seeking a “clean energy standard” – a requirement that the nation get a substantial portion of its energy from alternative sources – rather than a “renewable” standard or some other term.
“Clean,” Mr. White noted, allows for the inclusion of technologies like clean coal, a technology that involves sequestering carbon dioxide underground to prevent the heat-trapping gas from entering the atmosphere.
Other tricky terminology questions, Mr. White said, include how to categorize ethanol, a highly controversial fuel, particularly when it is derived from corn: Is it renewable or not? Renewable but not sustainable? Europe has a similar dilemma with biofuels like palm oil, which has generated concerns about land-use implications overseas.
Some differences in semantics between the United States and Europe are telling. Europeans feel no need to present fossil fuels as virtuous, said Jürgen Weiss, a principal with the Brattle Group, a consulting firm in Massachusetts.
“There is no strong industrial or political support base for these fossil fuels, which removes the requirement to touch them with velvet gloves,” Mr. Weiss said in an e-mail.
The United States is a large and enthusiastic producer of coal, natural gas and oil, but European production of those resources is generally declining or has never been an important pillar of the economy, according to Mr. Weiss. Even oil-rich Norway does not want to rely on oil as its chief source of energy, he said.
In Germany, “we don’t use ‘clean energy’ or ‘clean energies’ much, and the same is true for ‘green energies,”’ R. Andreas Kraemer, the director of the Ecologic Institute, based in Berlin, said in an e-mail. “The latter has connotations of political party affiliation, which most people want to avoid in discourse.”
Europeans do frequently have conversations about a different term, which some politicians in the United States treat like a toxin.
That term, as Mr. Weiss notes, is “climate change.”
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