Reframing the energy debate, Part 1: Time to stop using the phrase “renewable energy”

[This is the first in an occasional series on reframing the energy and climate debate. I welcome all ideas on how we can improve our language in what is now the central front in the war to protect the health and well-being of American families and all future generations.]

The phrase “renewable energy” is often used by the media and conservatives to give lip service to clean energy sources — by lumping them all together in order to trivialize them or diminish their individual potential. For instance, the “bunch of bland old guys” had just one bullet for renewables (and one for efficiency), thereby making them equivalent to expanded domestic oil and gas production, expanded nuclear production, and “clean coal”.

Progressives, I think, should stop using the phrase “renewable energy” entirely. It is lazy and fits into the conservative frame of renewable energy sources as individually insignificant. We should go out of our way to specify them, since several of them have come of age.

Take concentrated solar thermal power. No, I’m not thrilled with the name — how about baseload solar thermal? [Yes, I realize that solar thermal with storage isn’t so much baseload as it is load following (peaking during midday), but, heck, that is even better than baseload. In any case, conservatives keep dismissing renewables as non-baseload, and the phrase is certainly more accurate than “clean coal.” Yes, not all solar thermal has storage, but it is the stuff with storage that has the big upside. And while nobody knows what baseload solar thermal is, based on my media interviews, few people know what concentrated solar power is either, so you’re going to have to explain it either way.]

Baseload solar thermal is almost certainly going to provide more power every year this century than “clean coal” does (see “Concentrated solar thermal power — a core climate solution).”

And new windpower in this country could easily exceed new nuclear power (see Wind Power — A core climate solution). Indeed, if we’re smart, it will greatly exceed it.

I have long used the phrase “solar photovoltaics” for clarity, but since we have a completely different type of solar and since PV has come of age, I would recommend just saying “photovoltaics.”

Thus, my recommendation is to give them individually equal weight, as in “windpower, photovoltaics, and baseload solar thermal.” And if you want to throw in geothermal, that is fine with me, though I tend to think that would require a bigger effort to achieve significant post-2020 capacity, and I personally think the first three are enough, along with energy efficiency, for now (see “Is 450 ppm possible? Part 5: Old coal’s out, can’t wait for new nukes, so what do we do NOW?“).

I would also avoid the use of the word “balance,” since it is principally used by the same people who lump all of renewables together. For conservatives, a balanced energy policy includes shale! Note also Senator Jon Kyl’s statement: “I just want to briefly note that Senator McCain’s energy policy is a balanced policy.”

When I was at the Department of Energy in the 1990s, the administration made us use the word ‘balance’. Now we have to deliver the message, as Vice President Gore did, that we need an unbalanced energy policy, one that is focused on energy efficiency and renewable energy windpower, photovoltaics, and baseload solar thermal.


32 Responses to Reframing the energy debate, Part 1: Time to stop using the phrase “renewable energy”

  1. David B. Benson says:

    I like BST!

    But if you don’t like ‘renewable energy’, how about ‘permanent energy’?

  2. Brewster says:

    I like “Permanent Energy”

    It might make people sit up and take notice!

  3. Jeff Green says:

    Infinite Solar and Wind.

    Multigenerational Solar and wind.

    National Security Solar and wind.

    Never ending solar and wind.

    Abundant solar and wind.

    Secure Solar and wind

    Insecure oil.

    Economy busting oil

    Poor devastating oil

    climate hothouse oil

  4. MattKirby says:

    Thought provoking article! But why does there need to be a catchy name at all? Isn’t that buying into the same idea that they can all be lumped together? The day will inevitably come when ‘renewable energy’ is merely ‘energy.’ So why can’t we make that day come sooner? Just start reinforcing that clean energy is the only energy that we can really have long term. And start calling everything else ‘non-renewable’ energy. Lump those ideas together.

  5. Karel De Brabandere says:

    By the way, Vestas simply calls wind power, ‘modern energy’:

    And there absolutely right about it!

  6. Joe says:

    MattKirby: Yes, very good idea. Let’s call everything else non-renewable energy.

    David: I wasn’t really looking for a different word than “renewable” — I was just trying to get away from lumping all of renewables together.

  7. BT Turner says:

    Great post Joe, this is a great point. Giving each technology it’s own “bullet” in whatever policy process or document sends and reinforces the message that each is a priority, and not an afterthought.

    -I think it’d be wise to keep both “solar photovoltaics” (which can often be shortened to “solar PV”) and “solar thermal” for a few reasons: a) just “photovoltaics” sounds so techy you will turn off many people right away, b) most people don’t know there are both technologies, so they’ll think solar thermal is solar PV anyway, c) distinguishing solar thermal will cause those that don’t know it to learn more
    -I think biomass should be in the list. Whether it’s longer-term thermochemical conversion to electricity and gaseous or liquid fuel, or near-term biomass co-firing with pulverized coal, there is substantial sustainable potential in ag and forestry residues, non-cropland-grown energy crops, and urban wastes. And there’s a great constituency for it.
    -How about “low-carbon energies” for your umbrella term? It’s short, gets right to the point, people get it. Sure, it also includes nuclear and fossil generation with CCS, but so what?

  8. Ronald says:

    What we should be calling fossil fuels are depleatable energy.

    I was watching an Oil company exec. make comments at the recent Govenors conference. He made the comment about how much oil we used to pull out of the ground and now we are pulling out less, he immediately said we need more areas to drill to make up for it, the inference being that’s why we are pulling less oil out of the ground. The reason we are pulling less oil out of the ground has to do with reduced oil yields, certainly in this country since 1970, but also around the world. He purposely let people think that all we need to do is drill forever and we’ll be alright. But fossil fuels are depleatable.

    That’s what is the opposite of renewable. It is depleatable Natural Gas, Oil and Coal (Tar Sands and Oil Shale) and Renewable Wind, Solar and Geothermal.

  9. Ronald says:

    Just to add, the Natural Gas, Oil and Coal should be depleatables and what we call Renewables should be called non-depleatables to be accurate on what they really are.

  10. Paul K says:

    How about 21st Century energy?

  11. Brooks B. says:

    Very important concept!

    Smart Energy popped into my head. Great thing is one automatically thinks of “Stupid Energy” like corn ethanol, etc.

    Then I googled it. Taken long ago by geothermal company. I’m not a lawyer.

    But it MUST be something like that. Smart energy saves the planet like an energy should.

    Thom Hartmann in “Cracking the Code” explains why carefully reasoned arguments don’t win minds. You’ve got to get down to the reptilian brain instantly.

  12. Joe says:

    Yes, biomass should be on the list. I was thinking about this list in terms of electricity, but biomass is equally good if not better or for that than fuels.

  13. paulm says:


  14. Peter Wood says:

    Wave power may also be one to add to the list.

  15. David B. Benson says:

    I like paulm’s ‘sustainable energy” the best, so far.

    Fits in with ‘sustainable agriculture’.

  16. Paul K says:

    Sustainable sounds a bit like subsistence. 21st Century connotes progress.

  17. David B. Benson says:

    Paul K — With ‘progressive energy’ you lose the Republican vote. :-)

    Sorry, but ’21st century energy’ just has too many syllables.

  18. Joe says:

    Sorry — sustainable energy is a nonstarter. The term is simply too devoid of meaning, and the word “sustainable” is to easily mocked or dismissed.

  19. Paul K says:

    David B. Benson,
    There have been progressive Republicans since the party was formed. We owe our national park system to progressive Republicans. We owe the Civil Rights Act to progressive Republicans. That being said, the word I used was progress which appeals to all Republicans. In fact, partly due to your syllable point, I’m changing my suggestion to Progress Energy.

  20. john says:

    Well, I like the idea of naming each type of energy — I also think referring to fossil fuels as “depletable” or “depleting” or “rapidly depleting” resources makes some sense.

  21. Peter Foley says:

    How about the number of years until the next source is needed:
    1. Fossil Oil= good for ~30 years.
    2. Natural Gas= good for 50 years.
    3. coal power = good for 200+years.
    4. Wind Power = Good for ever 25 % of the time
    5. Solar Power = Good ~ 33% time on cloud free days below the Arctic circles.
    6. Nuclear power = over 1000 years with current fission tech.
    7. Various types of synthetic oil/Gas= Good until we run out of fissile material or sunlight.
    8. Coal, shale, or tar sands based oil = 70-100 years or more at least.

    I’m still waiting for Kerry’s plan for Iraq, the Demo’s energy plan is misery in the dark with high taxes.

    I can see Pelosi and Obama(is he praying 5 times a day) lips moving preying for an increase in oil prices and an economic crisis to get them Re/elected.

  22. I like Brooks´ SMART ENERGY. Remember, the debate in the US has a powerful influence on how we talk about these things in the rest of the world (like here in Sweden). “Smart” is probably not so hard to translate as many of the other suggestions.

  23. Jason L says:

    One other semantic that matters: instead of environmentalist, use conservationalist. I come from a farm in central Nebraska and one is a cussword and the other acceptable.

  24. Andy P says:

    Peter Foley:
    1. Fossil Oil = Good until the Arctic ice cap vanishes
    2. Natural Gas = Good until Florida is underwater
    3. Coal Power = Good until we can’t breathe outdoors
    6. Nuclear Power = Good until a meltdown or fissile material is “misplaced”
    7. Various types of synthetic oil/Gas = Good until Canada is tropical
    8. Coal, share, or tar sands based oil = Good until human activity on earth ceases

  25. David B. Benson says:

    Peter Foley — You ought to read what David Rutledge has to say about Peak Coal. Maybe as early as 2025 CE.

  26. John Hollenberg says:

    Here is the Peak Coal reference:

    Just started reading, looks to be very interesting.

  27. Brooks B. says:

    I vote against “unbalanced energy policy”. My mind immediately links to “mentally unbalanced” and I think “the enemy” would find a way to jump on that. In general, in my opinion FWIW, I think terms like “baseload solar thermal” are way too “scientific”.

    The scientists are convinced, it’s J Q Public we have to reach.

    When I read the bit on Shale Oil my first thought was “That’s insane!”

    So, thought of: Sane Energy.

    Again googled and found “Sane Energy Policy” is very popular. Obama made a speech in 2005 with that in title and just organized a forum with same name.

    Pro Life Energy
    Pro Earth Energy
    Save the F** planet energy

    People get big 6 figures to do this. Let’s hire one.

    They do pay people well into 6 figures to come up with such things. We’re talking about saving the planet .

  28. Emma says:

    I like ‘infinite’ versus ‘depleting’. And I love ‘baseload solar thermal’ – or even the term ‘baseload renewables’ to denote all the others apart from wind and solar PV that people never think when they hear the word ‘renewable’.

  29. Trinifar says:

    I like your ideas, Joe, and will offer this one: safe energy. Gives you the opportunity to drive home the point that fossil fuels are not safe — even if they were plentiful and cheap they can’t be used safely. Also goes nicely with “safe climate.”

  30. Craig says:

    How about ‘sustainable energy’. Energy sources that produce C02 are not sustainable over the long run and we should stop using them in a gradual way or else we are going to be forced to stop using them all at once.

  31. Jay Alt says:

    As Joe points out, the phrase ‘baseload solar thermal’ has real benefits. It promotes a specific, promising technology and strengthens the idea of reliability. Solar output does vary with cloud cover, but it also tracks well with air conditioning demand.

    Ideally, the phrase becomes familiar enough that ‘baseload’ could be tacked onto 2nd generation ‘wind power’ systems. The ones that will include energy storage. ‘Baseload wind power.’

    Wind and solar complement one another in availability and using the same term would strengthen the image of both.

    When countering the idea of ‘intermittence’ and ‘unreliability’ I like the terms ‘periodic’ or ‘cyclic.’ It acknowledges that energy providers will use those patterns to work clean energy systems into the grid.

  32. Harry says:

    time to stop using the phrase “natural ” gas too, we suggest fossil fuel gas… anyone else with ideas/links to this? what pr firm spun the phrase “Natural” gas in the first pace> very interested….