Define what is renewable

As advocates develop their own 100% regenerative policies, there may be some confusion as to what is considered renewable and regenerative.

The fossil fuel industry and for-profit utilities also market certain forms of technologies as clean when, in fact, these technologies are extractive false solutions masked as renewable.

Policy recommendations

100% regenerative energy policies should clearly define what constitutes renewable energy and what is allowed in the Renewable Portfolio Standard or “RPS eligible.”

Primary renewable energy sources should be regenerative (meaning, they are endless and not extracted from the earth):

  • Solar photovoltaics, which generate electricity directly from sunshine and can be built at all scales. Residential and commercial solar photovoltaics are distributed systems. Sizes of systems range from small rooftop systems to centralized large-scale systems. However, BIPOC communities prefer smaller decentralized generation (or distributed generation) as better suited for local communities.
  • Distributed solar thermal, which supplies heat directly in the form of hot water or other forms of renewable heat on the site of its installation.
  • Solar thermal electricity generation, which captures the sun’s energy for heating by heating a fluid that then uses the steam to power a generator to produce electricity.
  • Wind energy at all scales. BIPOC and frontline communities prefer local small-scale wind so as not to encroach on sensitive and protected lands. Wind energy includes onshore and offshore. The offshore industry has become amajor aspect of creation of good jobs in Western Europe and is growing rapidly in the Northeastern United States.

Intermediate sources of energy should be renewable:[1]

There are intermediate sources of energy that are part of the energy system; these may or may not be renewable depending on how they are created. These include:

  • Energy storage technologies:
    • Battery storage: Batteries store electricity in chemical form; the electricity is recovered by reversing the chemical reaction. The electricity generated is renewable if the electricity used to charge the battery is renewable. Battery storage should be designed into a renewable energy transition because it is part of the approach needed to deal with the variability of solar and wind. Storage can also be used for electric vehicle charging stations. Battery storage has been considered for many community facilities, including multifamily affordable housing, food banks, community centers, churches, fire stations, hospitals, and evacuation centers.
    • Flywheels: Flywheels are used for short-term storage of electricity in mechanical form. The electricity is recovered when the motor is reversed to function as a generator. This electricity is renewable if the flywheel’s motor is driven by renewable energy.
    • Note: Although energy storage technologies are crucial to 100% regenerative policies, it is also important to recognize the environmental and social impacts of mineral extraction for batteries, especially lithium ion, and recommend the rapid pursuit of more sustainable options (like flow batteries), combined with advanced transmission and grid operation.[2]
  • Hydrogen: Hydrogen can be made in various ways. The most common method today is to make it from natural gas, which obviously makes it not renewable. It can also be made by electrolyzing water using solar or wind energy, or directly from sunlight (this last technique is not yet commercial). In such cases, hydrogen essentially stores renewable energy, much like a battery. It can be used in fuel cells to generate electricity in hydrogen fuel cell cars and trucks (vehicles that replace larger batteries for smaller light-weight electrochemical system and that acts as the vehicle’s own power plant) and as a renewable substitute for natural gas in industry. Hydrogen has even been used on a pilot basis to fly commercial jet aircraft.

Prominent energy sources that do not reflect our principles:

  • Gas power plants: There is general consensus that gas power plants are not considered renewable energy and that the transition off of fossil fuels includes transitioning away from gas. Gas plants are often located in frontline communities, wreaking havoc by emitting vast amounts of pollution and impacting the health of local neighborhoods. “Without cleaner alternatives, gas plants already operating will ramp up generation, and other gas plants will turn back on. Because gas plants can be much dirtier when starting up, this increase in ‘cycling’ could actually increase air pollution from gas plants, possibly worsening air quality in surrounding communities, despite a cleaner grid state-wide.”[3] A 100% regenerative energy policy should include language that makes explicit the transition away from gas and communities should take great care to ensure gas power plants are not included in RPS eligibility.
  • Renewable Natural Gas: The fossil fuel industry and gas utilities market renewable natural gas (RNG) as a “cleaner” form of natural gas. Many states, such as California, have witnessed the gas lobby push for policies to ramp up RNG and even qualify RNG as a form of renewable energy. However, RNG still produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, especially if leaks from production and pipelines are counted. There is also a problem with scalability and out-of-state RNG, “There is nowhere near enough RNG to meet our heating load in the building sector. Let alone other sectors that are harder to electrify...SoCal Gas assumed in their study that more than 75 percent of the gas would come from out of state. Even if all in-state sources were tapped, they could supply only 2.5 percent of statewide gas consumption, or about 10 percent of heat and hot water needs in buildings.”[4]
  • Fracking: Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the process of injecting high-pressure liquid into underground rock to reach oil or gas. Frontline communities vehemently oppose fracking as operations are commonly sited in low-income communities and fracking causes highly contaminated water, air pollution, and earthquakes.
  • Clean coal: Clean coal is a marketing ploy used by big polluters to convince the public that high-tech coal plants produce less polluting coal, such as reduced sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide emissions or carbon capture. However, clean coal has been found to actually require more coal, is much more expensive than renewable energy, and the technology simply does not work.
  • Biofuels: Biofuels produce industrial pollution. The production of biofuels largely depends on oil and water. The machinery needed to cultivate the crops emits large carbon emissions and growing the plant source requires the use of large volumes of water that could strain local water resources. Fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides are also used for the cultivation of crops for biofuels, resulting in water pollution and environmental pollution.[5]
  • Biomass: “Biomass power—such as burning wood for energy—could do more harm than good in the battle to reduce greenhouse gases...Ploughing up pasture to plant energy crops could produce more CO2 by 2030 than burning fossil fuels, if not done in a sustainable way...”[6]
  • Waste to energy: Waste to energy is the incineration of trash to create energy. It is often deemed as having lower carbon-emissions than coal, but creates many other toxic and air pollutants that harm people and planet.
  • Nuclear: Nuclear fuel is not renewable because it is not regenerated by natural processes. In addition, as the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents have shown, nuclear power reactors are vulnerable to catastrophic accidents that can render the local environment uninhabitable. Nuclear power reactors routinely discharge radioactive liquids and gases to the environment. Radiation exposure disproportionately impacts women and children. “Women are as much as 50 percent more sensitive to radiation than men. Infants and children are more radiosensitive than adults, and fetuses and embryos even more so. Established levels of exposure to radiation, deemed ‘acceptable’ —but not ‘safe’—average the doses for adults and children, hiding the full impact to more sensitive members of the population...More than 40 studies in Europe have shown an increase in leukemia among children five years old and under living close to operating nuclear power reactors that have not experienced accidents.”[7] Moreover, nuclear reactors make plutonium – each typical size reactor (1.000 megawatts) makes about 30 Nagasaki size bombs worth of plutonium each year, if that plutonium is separated from the nuclear waste. There is more separated bomb-usable plutonium worldwide from nuclear power plants than there is in all the nuclear bombs in all nuclear weapon states put together.[8]

Examples

Examples of technologies that have mixed reviews:

  • Geothermal: Each state will need to determine its position on geothermal. Geothermal can be considered a good renewable energy source. If done right, geothermal can bring benefits to the community, such as good jobs, and provide baseload which many forms of renewable energy does not. However, there are serious concerns around water quality and use, increased earthquakes, and other unintended environmental consequences. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “Geothermal power plants can have impacts on both water quality and consumption. Hot water pumped from underground reservoirs often contains high levels of sulfur, salt, and other minerals... Hydrothermal plants are sited on geological ‘hot spots,’ which tend to have higher levels of earthquake risk. There is evidence that hydrothermal plants can lead to an even greater earthquake frequency. Enhanced geothermal systems (hot dry rock) can also increase the risk of small earthquakes. In this process, water is pumped at high pressures to fracture underground hot rock reservoirs similar to technology used in natural gas hydraulic fracturing.”[9]
  • Methane from solar and wind: Methane can be made from solar and wind energy. In this case, the energy itself would be renewable. However, methane leaks would still result in greenhouse gas emissions. While most “renewable natural gas” could be replaced directly with solar and wind and hydrogen from these sources, it is possible that methane would be needed for some applications. In such cases, it would be much better to get rid of the natural gas and use renewable methane.
  • Hydroelectric power: Many states include hydroelectric power (hydro) in their RPS mix. Some states only include small hydro. Each state will need to conduct its own research as to existing hydro capacity and their own needs to ramp up or down the usage of hydro. Some hydro plants do not require dams—with the most prominent being the power plant at Niagara Falls.
    • Oppose new dams: States should oppose new hydro in their RPS if they involve new dams. Dams have wreaked havoc on Indigenous communities, resulting in forced displacement, flooding of lands, and deforestation, particularly among poor communities.
    • Dam removal: 100% regenerative policies should leave the door open for dam removal. Many believe that most dams should be taken down to undo their multiple detrimental ecological and biodiversity impacts. If dams are taken down, they should be replaced by renewable sources in a timely manner. The matter is further complicated because some dams have multiple uses beyond electricity generation. This is why site- and state-specific work is needed to determine the best course for existing hydropower installations.

References

  1. For more information on extraction of minerals for the production of renewable energy systems, read: “REPORT: Clean Energy Must Not Rely on Dirty Mining.” Earthworks, 17 Apr. 2019. Accessed 18 Jul. 2019.
  2. Katwala, Amit. “The spiralling environmental cost of our lithium battery addiction.” Wired, 5 Aug. 2018. Accessed 18 Jul. 2019.
  3. Turning Down Gas in California.” Union of Concerned Scientists, 2018. Accessed 18 Jul. 2019.
  4. Golden, Rachel. “Analysis: Why utilities aren’t doing more with renewable natural gas.” Energy News Network, 14 Feb. 2019. Accessed 18 Jul. 2019.
  5. 10 Biggest Pros and Cons of Biofuels.” Green Garage, 6 Apr. 2016. Accessed 18 Jul. 2019.
  6. Biomass energy ‘could be harmful.’BBC News, 14 Apr. 2009. Accessed 18 Jul. 2019.
  7. What Women Need to Know About Nuclear Power.” Beyond Nuclear, 2019. Accessed 25 Jul. 2019.
  8. Dear Arjun: Can we generate electricity from nuclear waste?Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Jun. 2018. Accessed 26 Jul. 2019.
  9. Environmental Impacts of Geothermal Energy.” Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed 26 Jul. 2019.