What is a 'Clean Energy Standard'?

Although cap-and-trade is dead, its subsidy-seeking corporate advocates have not gone away. They have simply re-branded their cause as “clean energy” and are now lobbying for a so-called “clean energy standard” (CES).

What is “clean energy” and what would a CES entail? While there are no formal definitions of either term, “clean energy” will be a set of electricity generation technologies elevated to favored status by politicians rather than by consumers and markets.

Solar, wind and geothermal energy technologies are certain to be designated as “clean,” while advocates of so-called “clean coal,” nuclear, natural gas, biomass, and hydroelectric power will lobby Congress to gain government favor for their technologies.

Whatever happened to ‘renewable energy’?

Although it’s easy to conflate clean energy with renewable energy, they differ from one another in terms of political evolution.

Recall that cap-and-trade was a scheme by heavily subsidized renewable energy interests to force electric utilities to generate more electricity from wind and solar technologies at the expense of the fossil fuels (coal and natural gas). The renewables lobby hoped that, with environmental activists leading the charge, the fossil fuel industry could be demonized, defeated and, ultimately, displaced.

But cap-and-trade quickly unravelled after reaching its high water mark, i.e., the June 2009 passage of the Waxman-Markey bill. The comparatively small “renewables” lobby learned the hard way that global warming alarmism, especially amid economic recession and the Climategate revelations, was a politically insufficient strategy for challenging the fossil fuel industry and foisting their high-priced technologies consumers and taxpayers.

In 2010, the renewables lobby went back to the blackboard and discovered that the concept of “clean energy” polled much better than global warming. Now with a new rallying cry, “clean energy” advocates only have one more problem to overcome — the small size of their coalition.

“Clean energy,” then, is an effort to expand the renewables coalition to other forms of electricity generation (e.g., “clean coal,” natural gas, nuclear and biomass) in order to build enough political power to drag its anti-fossil fuel agenda across the goal line.

Is “clean energy” really clean?

It is easier to define clean energy by what it is not, than by what it is. “Clean energy” is definitely not plain old coal, the fossil fuel currently used to provide about 45 percent or so of U.S. electricity.

So what is it that makes coal not clean as compared to potential “clean energy” candidates wind, solar, biomass, natural gas, “clean coal,” geothermal etc.?

If “clean energy” is supposed to be free of greenhouse gas emissions, then natural gas, and even wind and solar don’t really qualify. Combusting natural gas to produce electricity generates about half the CO2 emissions as coal, and solar and wind require back-up electricity generation from coal and natural gas.

If “clean energy” is supposed to be environmentally benign, then no form of energy qualifies. Wind and solar have huge environmental footprints as they requires huge tracts of land to produce sufficient amounts of electricity, are viewed as eyesores, and require huge amounts of concrete, steel and water. Additionally, the manufacturing of solar and wind equipment, and the mining of needed rare earth metals occurs in environmentally-unfriendly China.

Large-scale geothermal projects appear to increase the likelihood of earthquakes. Not only does clean coal require the burning of 30 percent more coal to provide the necessary energy for carbon capture and storage, but it would require the risky injection of super-critical CO2 underground where it might leak and contaminate groundwater or even explode.

Environmentalists have criticized biomass as being a net greenhouse gas emitter when viewed on a lifecycle basis. Although nuclear power emits no greenhouse gases, environmentalists have attacked it for decades on a variety of fronts including the risk of radioactive emissions, waste transport and storage, and uranium mining.

All electricity production, therefore, involves environmental impacts. Labeling various means of electricity production as “clean” is clearly an exercise in arbitrariness.

What is a ‘clean energy standard’ or CES?

Under a CES, electric utilities would be requires to produce a certain amount of electricity from “clean energy sources,” starting out at perhaps 15 percent (as discussed in Congress last year) and ending up at 80 percent by 2035 (as recently proposed by President Obama). Even if natural gas were to be designated as “clean” for electricity production, a CES would still essentially operate as a carbon cap — like the “cap” part of cap-and-trade.

Meet the new cap-and-tax; the same as the old cap-and-tax — it’s just called a CES.

So what is ‘clean energy’ all about?

The push for “clean energy” has two underlying motivations: one is political and the other is financial.

As to the political motivation, green activists see “clean energy” as a way to increase government control over domestic energy use and, ultimately, the economy. This discussion, however, is more appropriate discussed in “Green Hell: How Environmentalists Plan to Control Your Life and What You Can Do to Stop Them” (Regnery 2009) and at GreenHellBlog.com.

This blog focuses on the financial motivation behind “clean energy.” While all forms of energy are subsidized to one extent or another in the U.S., fringe technologies like solar and wind are subsidized to a much higher degree than fossil fuels — 55 times greater for coal and 97 times greater than natural gas.

Nuclear power is famous for its cost overruns and new facility construction involves federal loan guarantees on the order of $8-$12 billion per plant. “Clean coal” means billions of dollars in subsidies to electric utilities.

The bottom line is that “clean energy” is more expensive energy. Ratepayers, consumers and taxpayers will all foot the higher bills for energy that is not demonstrably better for the environment. The financial beneficiaries are politically well-connected corporate fatcats. You pay more, get less and they make out like bandits.