Energy is not just clean or dirty - it's more complex than that

This blog is written by Gabriel Toscana

Energy is a complex subject in which many variables intervene and we therefore need to think carefully about how to make the best decisions about the way we use energy.

In the media, energy is often called dirty or clean. These terms are almost always an oversimplification and are not helpful for the governments making energy policy, let alone the individual trying to understand how he or she can make a difference.

There is no such thing as clean energy. Even the ‘cleanest’ of the clean energy sources, like hydro, wind, and nuclear, will have greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and other environmental impacts. Nothing is one hundred percent ‘clean.’

So a simple checklist that might help when trying to consider the impact of one energy type over another might be:

1. From generation to end use, what are the carbon emissions per kWh for the energy source you want to consider?
2. Is it reliable? And if not (wind for example) then how can you smooth out the supply when the unreliable source is not generating and what is the impact of those sources?
3. If you plan to store energy then will that process emit GHGs and what is the cost of the space required for  storage?
4. Should you go all-out for a particular technology or will you be restricted by cost?
5. Will climate change itself influence how your chosen energy source works in the future?
6. Based on the above – and related questions – which energy source gives the best combination of financial cost and reduced GHG emissions?

This is not even a comprehensive list, but these are the questions that might get a conversation started when planning the best form of energy source. You will need to create a model that explores the costs using each source and the emissions generated so apples can be compared with apples.

Energy use is complex. Sometimes the media creates the idea that there are clearly defined dirty and clean sources of energy, but the reality is not so simple. Engineers with an understanding of all the variables should be the real advisors on how to design energy systems, not the well intentioned, but less informed.

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