What is green energy?

This term gets used a lot in stats: how much of our energy is green? How much of Denmark’s or Germany’s or China’s or France’s? It depends what you consider green.

Most people would I think imagine that green energy means renewables. If a company said it invested in green energy projects, would you be surprised if you found out they’re investing in a nuclear startup that wants to build small modular reactors (SMRs)?

Or if it was investing in a project to dispose of the UK’s plutonium stockpile, currently sitting around at Sellafield with nobody knowing what to do with it? And if a by-product of that nuclear waste disposal process happened to be energy, would that then make it green energy?

Not creating it in the first place would probably be the answer your average anti-nuclear campaigner would give you, but it’s there, we can’t turn back the clock and not do whatever it was we did to create it. We have to face up to it and deal with it.

Avoiding problems is not green.

Would we consider hydro green? I expect most of us here in the UK would say yes, but what about the Banqiao Dam disaster that killed between 90,000 and 230,000 people? How green is that? Even when hydro works, it still has a huge impact on the environment. How socially just is it to flood a valley that has been home to many families for generations? To change the course of rivers, to alter our landscape in such drastic ways? Put it like that, and we have to accept that not all hydro can be considered green energy.

Did you know that the Sierra Club, America’s equivalent of Friends of the Earth, used to oppose hydro whilst for a while, in the 60s, they supported nuclear power?

Things changed. The cold war was generating a huge fear around anything nuclear, and nuclear power was inevitably linked to nuclear weapons. If you were against the weapons you had to be against the power, and with lots of liberal environmentally concerned people turning against nuclear weapons, focusing the attack on nuclear was a smart move — though whether it was intentionally smart or accidentally smart I don’t know.

You can’t assume that all hydro is the same. Small-scale unobtrusive hydro, like a water wheel, is very different to large-scale hydro that transforms an entire landscape beyond recognition. The same goes for tidal, wave, solar, wind and nuclear.

People often talk about covering the desert with solar panels, but deserts are not completely barren. Things live in deserts and some people live in deserts.

We sometimes think of our seas and oceans as if they are deserts in which we can install our wind farms and wave machines, and to some extent we can and should, but we also need to consider the environmental impacts of these projects, particularly on highly intelligent creatures such as whales and dolphins.

We call ourselves greens, and yet if you look at the earth from space it’s blue. Most of the planet is ocean. A future offshoot of the green movement, calling itself the blue movement, could argue that greens were too landocentric. We mostly forget about the oceans and the creatures that live in them. We treat them as if they were our energy-making factory.

We’re only using a tiny part of the oceans, the greens would say, but then that’s exactly what the polluters used to say on dumping their waste: it’s a drop in the ocean.


Originally published at Green Geeks.

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